South African President Jacob Zuma told foreign leaders and diplomats on Wednesday that former president Nelson Mandela had once said that the first thing he would do upon arrival in heaven would be to join the heavenly ANC branch.
‘And if he did not find one, he would quickly establish one,’ Zuma said at a reception in Pretoria for those leaders who had stayed on in South Africa after Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB stadium on Tuesday, to view his body lying in state at the Union Buildings.
International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane had just said much the same thing, joking that Mandela was even now forming a quorum to establish that ANC branch in the clouds. Zuma then gave the foreigners a long account of Mandela’s history in the ANC to show how integral it was to his life and vice versa.
The day before at the FNB stadium, US President Barack Obama had captivated the crowd – and upstaged Zuma – with a rousing speech that dwelt on the lessons Mandela’s life had to offer the rest of us, himself notably included. But a day later Zuma was saying, yes, Mandela had been a mentor to those who followed him; however, he had also been a protégé of those ANC leaders who had preceded him. In other words, Zuma seemed to be saying that the ANC was larger than Mandela. Maybe he was also saying, ‘Obama might be a fine orator, but he doesn’t know Mandela like I know Mandela.’
He closed by telling the foreign leaders that by coming to South Africa they had given themselves the opportunity ‘to express condolences to the Mandela family but also his larger family, the ANC’. The leaders and diplomats seemed rather bemused at the history lesson and the notion that they had come to South Africa to convey condolences to the ANC. It seemed inappropriate for Zuma to be speaking to a foreign audience in effect as ANC president rather than as national president.
Perhaps, though, his remarks were directed more at the local TV cameras and journalists than at the foreigners. This is a message that the ANC leadership seem eager to convey to South Africans ahead of next year’s elections: Mandela was ours and remains ours. So hands off. In the same way that his family has been battling over Mandela’s commercial legacy, so politicians have been jostling over his political legacy. Some time back, the Democratic Alliance (DA) put out advertisements claiming that it was a more deserving heir to the Mandela legacy than today’s ANC, wracked as it is by cronyism, tenderpreneurship and corruption.
However, if Zuma did intend Wednesday’s message primarily for foreign ears, perhaps his intention was to regain some of the considerable face he lost in the eyes of the world when large parts of the crowd at the FNB stadium booed him several times.
That booing – which came as a great shock to foreigners and locals alike – had the effect of fraying that vital umbilical cord between Mandela, the ANC and Zuma that Zuma and the ANC claim. If a large part of a crowd that came to honour Mandela also dishonoured Zuma, his successor at the helm of the ANC, what message did that convey about the ANC as Mandela’s party?
The message from the bleachers seemed to be, ‘The ANC is no longer the party of Mandela.’ It could almost be read as saying, ‘Stop trying to expropriate him. Mandela is not yours. He belongs to all of us.’ Of course, we will never know for sure what the intended message was or even who delivered it. A soccer stadium crowd does not have a collective mind and therefore a common intention.
ANC officials have tried to explain that the booing was orchestrated by Julius Malema’s newly formed Economic Freedom Front (EFF). How they know that is unclear. But the fact that the crowd gave a loud cheer when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s face appeared on the giant TV screen suggests they may be right, since Malema is a known Mugabe fan. But would Mugabe fans also applaud Obama? That seems a contradiction, but who said humans are consistent?
Another interpretation is that the booing came from ANC voters newly disenchanted by the Nkandlagate scandal, among others. In a sense the distinction is rather academic, since the EFF supporters are mostly disaffected ANC supporters anyway. It was the sheer volume of dissent, though, which must have alarmed ANC leaders about the portents for next year’s election.
Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele, who was in the stadium, suggested that the booing was a ‘tipping point’ in the ANC’s fortunes, and that the ‘booers’ were ANC supporters (or erstwhile supporters) expressing their dissent in this anonymous way because their party no longer brooked real debate. Of course, as a rival politician she would say that. But there might have been a grain of truth in it anyway.
No matter what analysis might reveal about who booed and why, one thing is clear – most of the booing was aimed at Zuma. That is worrying for both him and his party. Zuma’s Wednesday address seemed to be part of a renewed effort to repair the vital umbilical cord linking him and his party to the Madiba magic. Whether that can be done by dwelling on the historical connections between Mandela and the ANC rather than by demonstrating that the ANC is actually living Mandela’s values today is the question that perhaps only the elections will begin to answer.
As Obama said of Mandela in his speech on Tuesday, ‘He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.’ And ‘Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate his heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?’
Written by Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa