Two days after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela addressed thousands of people at Soweto’s Soccer City stadium. “Today, my return to Soweto fills my heart with joy,” he told the crowd.
Soweto is always the final destination on the ANC’s election campaign trails.
The sprawling township was the heart and home of the liberation struggle. The 1976 Soweto Uprising possibly changed the course of history of the country. The ANC’s political leaders were brought to Soweto when they returned from prison and exile.
An anthem in the mid-80s was Hugh Masekela’s “Bring him back home to Soweto”. In February 1990, Mandela returned to his home in Orlando West in Soweto and was welcomed back at a mass rally at Soccer City. The revamped stadium is also where South Africans and world’s leaders gathered to honour the memory of Mandela after his passing in December last year.
The day of Mandela’s memorial service will be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. It marked the ANC’s greatest humiliation when people in the stands booed President Jacob Zuma in front of the nations of the world. It poured with rain for the duration of the memorial service and large sections of the stadium were empty. The ANC’s sign language interpreter turned the event into a fiasco.
The atmosphere at Sunday’s closing election rally could not have been more different. A capacity crowd of 94,000 ANC supporters packed the stadium, and thousands of others watched the proceedings on big screens in overflow areas outside the stadium. The sun beat down and the crowds were jubilant in praise of the ANC. The day was a festival of song and dance, with some of the country’s top artists performing.
Watch: ANC’s Siyanqoba rally
After an arduous and testing election campaign, it was all hitch-free and smoothly managed. The ANC offered free wi-fi to keep people talking about the event on social media. And Zuma was a hot favourite – when he was not ploughing through a truly awful 3,013-word speech, unsuited to the occasion.
Those who spoke on behalf of the ANC youth, women and veterans leagues, as well as alliance partners, Cosatu, the South African Communist Party and civics organisation Sanco, expressed confidence that the ANC would win overwhelmingly and raged against the opposition and critics.
Zuma’s job was to sew it all up, to deliver the pièce de résistance.
He did, eventually. But not in a way a restless nation needed him to.
It had all been laid out for him. Even before he entered the stadium, it was all about Zuma, the face of the campaign. Master of ceremonies Malusi Gigaba whipped up the crowd, building expectation for Zuma’s entrance. When he finally entered, it was rock star stuff. Flanked by security personnel and officials, Zuma strutted onto the stage and then down onto a giant t-shaped ramp on the pitch, waving to the crowds.
It was his moment. He loved the adoration. It was his to harness.
But Zuma being Zuma, he gave it away.
The speech started off fittingly, summing up the election campaign. “ANC leaders and volunteers have visited every corner of the country in the past few weeks, humbly engaging our people. The people have told us that South Africa is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994, thanks to the programmes and policies of the ANC.
“At the same time, they identified areas of concern and told us where we need to improve, as we deliver a better life for all. We are concluding our campaign on a high note. There is lot to be proud of about our beautiful country as we mark 20 years of freedom.”
The thing to have done then was to put down the rambling speech about the ANC’s track record in government and delivery statistics and talk to the party’s core constituency, as well as still undecided or opposition voters who were watching him.
Zuma needed to tell all these people that while the ANC did well to change the face of South Africa over the past 20 years, he is aware that the party had strayed from what it was and what it intended to be. He needed to say that the slate would be wiped clean, that the pain and disappointment would stop. Nobody expects him to talk about Nkandla or any other monkey on his back in an election rally, but Zuma needed to acknowledge that the scandals in the ANC and government had damaged the party, and that this would now stop.
How differently would that speech have been received? How many people who are disenchanted by the ANC and cannot bring themselves to vote for it would have possibly reconsidered? Towards the end of the speech, Zuma thanked those who had left but were returning to the ANC.
“We urge all others who are still in other parties, to make the journey home. They will be warmly received. The ANC is the home of all progressive South Africans.”
But it is the ANC that needs to make the journey home. And that was the time and place to point the way.
It was the moment to reach out, not belt out the record of government delivery which people are already being assaulted with daily. The problem with the ANC campaign was not over its delivery record but its abuses and excesses. And now it will enter another term of government without seeing or undertaking to address that problem.
During Zuma’s speech, thousands of people streamed out of the stadium, either to escape the heat, or from hunger and exhaustion. An interminable report on the state of the nation did not empower them in any way. So they left. The ANC was embarrassed but like with much else concerning Zuma, they let him go on without intervening and watched the stadium emptying.
They knew the finale would make up for the dull, uninspiring speech.
If there is one thing Zuma can do right, it is to sing rousingly. The people in the stadium sensed that he was nearing the end of the speech when he invoked the names of the ANC’s departed heroes, calling for people to vote for the movement of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Solomon Mahlangu, Harry Gwala and others.
He then began his campaign song Yinde Lendlela, which became his signature tune from the run-up to the ANC’s 53rd conference in Mangaung, where he was elected the party leader for the second term. The song, loosely translated, means “The road we are travelling is long; Mandela said we will meet on Freedom Day”.
Zuma sang it with gusto and passion. His voice resounded over the stadium and the crowd sang in unison of the wish of meeting Nelson Mandela on Freedom Day. As Zuma sang, he strode down the ramp, flanked by the ANC officials and national executive committee. As the song reached its crescendo, confetti burst from the sides of the ramps, enveloping the ANC leadership in a cocoon of the party colours.
It might have been choreographed but it was a moment in time. There stood the successors of a legion of heroes, people wholly unworthy of their inheritance, boldly taking the ANC on a path it should not be on. It was tragedy wrapped up with poignancy, all to the soundtrack of a beautiful song of struggle and an impossible dream.
As the gigantic stadium emptied, and the confetti floated high above it, the message was there for all to see: the ANC of yesterday is no more. These were the leaders of tomorrow, the people who on Wednesday will be handed a renewed mandate to govern South Africa, as unworthy as they are.
In that special place in Soweto, the moment came and went to turn back and find the way home. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma gestures as he speaks during the African National Congress (ANC) final mass election rally in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 May 2014. EPA/IHSAAN HAFFEJEE
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