Till the end of time, history will have it recorded that on the day leaders from across the globe joined South Africa to commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela, the heavens wept and president of the country was humiliated by his people. There is no way to undo that script. The ANC and the state are now in overdrive, trying to “contextualise” and explain why President Jacob Zuma was repeatedly booed during the memorial service. The international media narrative is now shifting to what is wrong with South Africa that its people would be angry enough to shame their president in front of the world, and whether Mandela’s legacy is being undone by his successor. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
As Nelson Mandela’s casket was being driven through the streets of Pretoria on Wednesday morning for the first public viewing of his body, the voice-overs on many of the international news channels were still analysing the events of the day before. The assemblage of world leaders and Obama-Castro handshake are still making big news but the talk of the town remains the “jeering” of President Jacob Zuma at South Africa’s most high-profile event in its history. From Tuesday afternoon, the narrative shifted from Mandela’s life and legacy to the state of his country now and the current political leadership of the country.
Some foreign media viewed Zuma from the start of his presidency through the prism of his traditional beliefs, his polygamous lifestyle and his lack of formal education. All these were flung out and dissected during the live feeds from the stadium as they tried to explain the bizarre reaction of the crowd every time his name was announced or his image was beamed on the big screens.
South African journalists exchanged looks of disbelief every time the booing happened. Of course Zuma’s presidency has been controversy-ridden and scandal plagued. Of course there is a stark disconnect between the current political leadership and the people they lead – the disregard of the rampant service delivery protests, the callousness in the face of the Marikana massacre and other incidents of police brutality, the wanton spending in the face of desperate poverty, the arrogance and contempt for accountability – but who would have thought it would manifest through a public shaming of the president in front of the world.
On the day when Nelson Mandela’s life was to be celebrated.
Those being interviewed about why they booed the president and left the stadium before he spoke told of their anger over contemporary issues – primarily Nkandla and e-tolls. These interviews are writing the script of Mandela’s passing with the denigration of his legacy by those who lead his country now.
AFP sent the following copy around the world:
“Disgruntlement with the African National Congress that Mandela once led has been growing amid claims that Zuma misspent $20 million on upgrading his private residential compound at a time that more and more ordinary citizens are battling to make ends meet.
“It’s because of the scandals. He’s wasting money, building houses for his many wives,” 53-year-old Ella Mokone said of the polygamist president’s public humiliation.
“Madiba never gave his family tenders. Our current president is enjoying with his family, but Madiba never did that, he worked for the people,” said realtor Shadreck Monnakgotla, using the clan name by which Mandela was fondly known.
Phumzile Vilakaza was among those who left the stadium while Zuma was still addressing the crowd. “I’m not listening to him. He must think about the people down there. We’re fed up with more taxes, toll-gates, prices of food going up, while many of us got no job.”
When the booing first happened, ANC and government spokespeople played it down, saying all they heard was cheering. But then the truth became blatantly obvious, as the boos bellowed over the stadium every time the president’s face appeared on the screen.
Zuma looked genuinely startled. He, like everyone else, was caught off guard. And to add insult to injury, his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who was ejected from office, received roaring cheers. Even Apartheid’s last president FW De Klerk was cheered.
What happened to the man who rode the crest of the wave of popularity from the dock to the Union Buildings? How did he come to be despised now?
ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, the man Mandela had wanted to succeed him, was responsible for calming down the crowd. He said in Zulu “Okunye sizokubona mahambile” (we’ll deal with our problems after the visitors have left) in order to beg for discipline during Zuma’s speech. But the fact that we have problems is now out there. If it happened once, it will happen again. Others who are fed up with his leadership will be spurred to also act out.
ANC and government officials initially blamed on Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. Unfortunately for them, people draped in ANC regalia were dancing in front and one the side of the media suite singing anti-Zuma songs.
Up in the stands, where the loudest boos came from, was the very place ANC struggle songs were sung earlier in the day. Not the current popular songs. No, they were singing the songs from the ANC camps, the songs from exile. Those were ANC people booing, not youngsters with no political pedigree and high on Malema’s rhetoric.
Panic set in about what would happen during Zuma’s speech. Upstairs in the VIP suites, there were frantic discussions between ANC and government officials. Gauteng ANC chairman Paul Mashatile and secretary David Makhura came hastily down the stairs, followed by former National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele. They were later seen in the stands, trying to convince people not to boo the president. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa also left his suite to talk to his officials. People in the stands claimed the police fanned out in the upper stands to quieten them down.
In the aftermath, the ANC was livid. In a statement on Tuesday night, the party said “some amongst the mourners displayed despicable and unbecoming behaviour by repeatedly heckling Comrade President Zuma today”.
“This is a period of mourning. None amongst us should ever use this solemn moment to disrespect any amongst us, whatever their personal views and grievances,” the statement read.
The ANC realised there was no use trying to disown the boo-ers. It called for “unruly elements within our fold” to be isolated and said “all of us to have the right to differ in a constructive and disciplined manner”.
The ANC in Gauteng was desperate to show that they were not behind the ill-discipline, despite them having being in the forefront of the campaign to oppose Zuma’s second term at the ANC’s Mangaung conference last year. Makhura tweeted: “The booing by a section of the crowd at the memorial service today is despicable act that reflects negatively on SA” and “ANC condemns the booing in strongest terms. We are certain the perpetrators of this heinous act of disrespect are not members of ANC.”
ANC head of communications in Gauteng Nkenke Kekana tweeted: “The ANCGP condemns the behavior of the crowd that booed the leadership, it was an embarrassment to South Africa and the image of Madiba!”
Government is trying to project that it is tolerant of dissent but that honouring Mandela should take precedence. In an interview with Talk Radio 702, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane said now was not the time for people to vent their frustrations.
He claimed the president was not upset, but in some ways disappointed that people chose the memorial service as the platform to show their anger. “People have the right to do what they want to do as long as they don’t break the law. But I think in terms of the decorum of the occasion, it isn’t acceptable that such things happened,” Chabane said.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj was desperate to play down the heckling of the president. He said ours was a “noisy and vibrant democracy” and that the event was attended by people across party lines, not just ANC members.
“There was a minor accident of the president being booed. But it lasted just a few minutes and the entire programme went very well. When President Zuma spoke, he was received very warmly and the entire speech was welcomed by everybody in the stadium,” Maharaj said in an interview with Talk Radio 702.
The ANC national executive committee, which was scheduled to meet last weekend, has been postponed until after Mandela’s funeral. The booing of the president will now be something for the leadership to confront. They will have the choice of believing that this was the work of unruly fringe elements or try to understand why people are genuinely angry.
The memorial service was to be the big global send-off for the greatest leader of our time; it was expected that South Africans would crowd stadiums in and around Johannesburg, that it would be as poignant as the funeral of Princess Diana and like the memorial for Michael Jackson, the world’s greatest would capture the life in word and song.
It did not happen like that. The logistics were abysmal, turnout was disappointing, the programme pedestrian, the weather unrelenting.
But there were big moments to remember – the showstopper speech by US President Barack Obama, the handshake between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, the sight of Madiba’s two great loves Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Graca Machel hugging, the rain wafting down as the National Anthem was sung.
And Zuma’s humiliation.
As Ramaphosa promised, when the visitors leave, we have to deal with our problems. Until then, Nelson Mandela’s body is still with us. There is still time to let history show that South Africa gave him the honour he deserved. DM
Photo: People hold placards of former South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, during the national memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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