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Vol 54 No 25

Published 13th December 2013

South Africa

When the clouds cried

The nation’s grief at the loss of its founding father was brusquely interrupted by the next struggle for power

It was a day of the sharpest political contrasts when South Africans and the wider world celebrated the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela on 10 December at the FNB stadium in Soweto. African National Congress Vice-President and old Mandela favourite Cyril Ramaphosa explained to the international audience that the rain pouring down on the stadium and its surrounding mine dumps was the best possible omen for the hero's departure. Another ANC veteran told fellow mourners that even the sky was weeping for the country's loss.

Just how deeply South Africa feels that loss became clear as events unfolded. Many ANC loyalists lamented the poor organisation of the memorial day, which they found symptomatic of the record of President Jacob Zuma's government. Many working class South Africans stayed away from the event as the government hadn't declared a public holiday. To make matters worse, no special transport was provided for the venue; some mourners were deterred by reports that the stadium would be packed to the rafters. In the event, the 75,000 seat stadium was little more than half full.

Although the memorial had been in preparation for months, the ceremony, essentially a series of speeches by ANC leaders and foreign dignitaries, didn't capture the breadth and depth of Mandela's life, in the view of many present. The ANC speakers were, for the most part, paid-up Zuma loyalists. Down the road, an ANC election poster emblazoned with Zuma's face urged people to vote for the party in next April's elections to ensure that Tata (Father) Mandela) had a good send off. Such crass exploitation of the Father of the Nation's memory seemed to fire up Zuma's opponents within – and without – the ANC.

The crowd gave a standing ovation to United States President Barack Obama's speech and cheered when he pointed out that many of those praising Mandela's commitment to equality and freedom were still repressing their own people. At the same time they cheered his handshake with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, which White House press officers hastily assured Americans was a 'spontaneous decision'. Probably the loudest cheer came when Mandela's two successive wives, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Graça Machel, embraced warmly.

The day's main talking point was the contrast between the Mandela legacy and current realities under the Zuma government. Opponents of Zuma expressed this by loudly booing at the giant screens around the stadium whenever they showed Zuma's face. ANC apparatchiks were furious, initially but incorrectly blaming the booing on an orchestrated campaign by Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party (AC Vol 54 No 20, Political mould starts to break & How the parties will go into 2014). Compounding Zuma's embarrassment, they roared with approval when his ousted predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, came on the screen and even managed a cheer for the last apartheid President, F.W. de Klerk. In fact, much of the booing and singing of anti-Zuma songs came from the stands where most of the people were resplendent in ANC colours and carrying images of Mandela.

So embarrassing was this outbreak of opposition at the memorial and the relaying of it across the world by satellite television, that the technicians switched the screens off for a time.Then ANC officials rushed through the stands telling people to stop booing. Senior figures in the ANC's Gauteng provincial organisation, such as Paul Mashatile, who opposed Zuma at last year's party elections at Mangaung, looked embarrassed lest he and his comrades be accused of organising this mass dissension. Ramaphosa then told the crowd in Zulu that South Africans should resolve their differences away from the international spotlight, advice that would have been extremely awkward to offer in English.

Zuma looked increasingly anxious as his turn to speak approached. Various tactics were employed to divert the booers: first vigorous singing from an ANC choir and then a high-volume bout of praise-singing. By the time Zuma started his speech, a lengthy and lifeless recitation of Mandela's history, most of the booers seemed to have left the stadium, which had started emptying out after Obama spoke, an hour earlier. Doubtless Team Zuma will ensure there's no repeat performance of the public humiliation at Mandela's burial at Qunu on 15 December, but Zuma's political confidence has been badly dented in the lead up to the formal launch of the party's election campaign next year.

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