Tuesday 10th December 2013 saw the Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela held at the FNB stadium on the outskirts of Soweto. Rather unexpectedly, on my part at least, this became a more overtly political event than I was anticipating. Domestic South African politics was definitely not put on hold for the duration of the service. Most notably there were repeated choruses of loud boos aimed at current South African President, Jacob Zuma, from significant sections of the crowd. The biggest cheers seemed to be reserved for Barack Obama but interestingly, former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, was also well received. As a result the MC for the event and Deputy President of the African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa, repeatedly called for discipline from the crowd. Then towards the end of the service, when many had already left the stadium, Desmond Tutu showed his frustration at what he presumably thought was inappropriate behaviour for such an event. A news story in the South African press also suggests that the public broadcaster (SABC) was instructed to ‘cut away’ to try and hide the booing of Zuma.
So why did sections of the crowd react to Zuma in such a fashion? From watching on TV it was clear that some small elements of the crowd were clearly supporters of Julius Malema’s new political party (Economic Freedom Fighters). However, interviews with some members of the crowd broadcast on the BBC World Service suggest those booing came from a much wider constituency. Another report also suggested that sections of the crowd dressed in ANC colours joined in with the booing of Zuma.
So it seems the boos may have reflected a wider sense of disappointment with the performance of the current government and Zuma in particular. Some of the interviewees made direct reference to the accusations of corruption surrounding the upgrade to Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. South Africa’s Mail and Guardian recently published details of the core findings of the public protector’s provisional report on the so-called security upgrades to his home in KwaZulu-Natal, which suggests that the costs escalated from an original estimate of R27 million to R215 million. The provisional decision of the report is that Zuma will have to repay the state and face questions in parliament.
During the post-apartheid era, given that the ANC has been the main route to political power, much of the most significant debate has taken place within the party. In this sense, rifts within the ANC are nothing new. Bitter divisions led to the overthrow of Thabo Mbeki at the ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane in 2007. More recently branches of the ANC within the province of Gauteng (where the memorial service was held) failed in a bid to replace Zuma with Kgalema Motlanthe as ANC President at the Manguang Conference in December 2012.
A lively debate in South Africa has resulted as to whether the memorial service was an appropriate platform for citizens to display their feelings towards Zuma. The whole event clearly had a political agenda. I am sure it was no accident, given the recent focus of South Africa’s foreign policy, that the government gave the platform to the Presidents of Brazil and India and the Vice-President of China but not a single leader from Europe. This was not a funeral and given the frustrations of many, with the lack of socio-economic development and the increase in income inequality within South Africa since 1994, it is perfectly understandable.
How did Zuma respond? He delivered a rather dispassionate account of the familiar history of Mandela’s role in the struggle against apartheid. South African comedian, Trevor Noah, tweeted “did someone write this speech or is Zuma reading a Wikipedia page?”. There was precious little on the way forward for South Africa and in general it highlighted his significant limitations as a leader.
Does this all mean that the ANC will struggle to win the April 2014 election? In a word, no. However, there is clearly a rising tide of dissatisfaction within South Africa if levels of protest, as measured by police statistics, are a reliable indicator. South African academic, Peter Alexander, has called this the ‘rebellion of the poor‘ but what is interesting is that in an academic article published in 2010 he concluded that there was ‘no evidence that Zuma, or the ANC in general, were held responsible for people’s problems’ (Alexander 2010, p. 34)*. Maybe events on Tuesday suggest that the tide is beginning to turn. Nevertheless, an alternative ruling party remains a rather distant prospect.
* Alexander, P., 2010. Rebellion of the poor: South Africa’s service delivery protests – a preliminary analysis. Review of African Political Economy, 37 (123), 25-40.