President Jacob Zuma on Monday described last week’s protests demanding that he resign as racist.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators, angered by years of corruption scandals, record unemployment and slowing economic growth under Zuma’s rule, marched through cities on Friday.
Zuma’s recent sacking of finance minister Pravin Gordhan unleashed a fresh bout of public frustration, as well as unprecedented criticism from senior ANC figures, including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The largely peaceful protests in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town attracted a diverse mix of South Africans, but Zuma railed against those who participated.
“The marches that took place last week demonstrated that racism is real and exists in our country,” he said.
“Many placards and posters displayed beliefs that we thought had been buried … with some posters depicting black people as baboons.”
The president gave no further details about the alleged placards and posters or where they had been seen.
The protest in Johannesburg was organised by the Democratic Alliance, which some ANC supporters accuse of harbouring white racists.
Further demonstrations are planned on Wednesday ahead of a parliamentary motion of no confidence in the president on April 18.
Zuma has easily survived previous such votes against him.
The president was speaking at an annual memorial service for anti-apartheid hero Chris Hani, who was shot dead by a white supremacist in 1993.