Zuma moves to reclaim prestige

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President Jacob Zuma speaking during the funeral ceremony for Nelson Mandela in Qunu on Sunday. Picture: Reuters

Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma on Sunday moved to set the tone to reclaim lost ground following his repeated public booing just days earlier, and to reclaim his role as president of the country and of the ANC.

However, the jury is still out on whether his careful words pledging the continuation of South Africa’s journey to non-racialism, tolerance and a better life for all would repair the damage caused by the booing at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela in the FNB Stadium in front of 90 world leaders, while the occasion was broadcast live across the globe.

Speaking at on Sunday’s state funeral for Mandela at his ancestral home of Qunu, Eastern Cape, Zuma pledged to “continue promoting non-racialism and tolerance in (the) country and to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all” and to ensure South Africa continued to rise.

“We cherish the lessons you (Mandela) taught us, of the importance of reconciliation, forgiveness and compassion,” said Zuma, citing gender equity, education and the improvement of the lives of the poor and working class. “We have to continue building the type of society you worked tirelessly to construct. We have to take your legacy forward,” Zuma told 4 500 mourners.

“In doing so we will continue drawing lessons from your very rich and extraordinary life. We will always remember you as a man of integrity, who embodied the values and principles that your organisation, the ANC, promotes. These are unity, selflessness, sacrifice, collective leadership, humility, honesty, discipline, hard work and mutual respect. We will promote these values and practise them to build the type of society you wanted.”

Political analysts agreed that on Sunday’s address by Zuma at Madiba’s funeral, broadcast across the world, was a move to reclaim the high ground.

But Professor Susan Booysen, of the Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management, said it remained a lost opportunity as it did not go beyond “generically-formulated” expressions.

“Zuma’s government would gain so much if Zuma, as the prime leader, would have come back to say: ‘We have not always followed in Madiba’s footsteps, but we must take this time to recommit. Where we have not been right, we will do better’,” Booysen said.

“This would have been a week of amnesty for this government. I listened hard. I did not find it. They (the government) missed such an irretrievable opportunity,” she said.

The director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Professor Steven Friedman, said the tone and direction of Zuma’s speech at the funeral was an attempt “to reconnect with people. This is not the end (of what he has to do), it is the beginning. I think it was an indication he is listening. He is not going into denial”.

While many ANC leaders said the heckling and booing were orchestrated, and blamed unruly elements, Friedman echoed other political commentators’ sentiments that this was an expression, ill-timed as it was, of disenchantment.

“It does reflect serious disenchantment. Clearly, among the insiders there is a problem,” Friedman said, hastening to add that this would not necessarily scupper the ANC’s election prospects next year.

Amid much speculation that the ANC would lose significant support - some pollsters put the figure as low as a percentage in the mid-50s – the ANC in recent months has moved to dispel such speculation.

Amid several controversies, it appears the R208 million taxpayer-funded security upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla rural homestead stands out. Most recently, the ANC gave its strongest signal yet that the controversy was putting it under pressure in calling on the public protector to immediately release her report on the matter so it did not become a political football in the run-up to elections.

The political repercussions over Zuma’s booing are unlikely to settle quickly, and are expected to arise in discussions when the ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting reconvenes – its last meeting of the year was postponed following Mandela’s death.

During Saturday’s service by the ANC and alliance partners, labour federation Cosatu and the SACP, to see off Madiba from Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria, Zuma cautioned against “abusing” Mandela’s name.

Describing Madiba as an honest man with integrity – “he did not use his talent to talk to you indirectly, or through innuendos” – Zuma said, according to a transcript the ANC released: “We should not think that Madiba’s passing is a time for us to indirectly settle scores. We wouldn’t have understood Madiba, and it means we will never understand him. He was an honest man.”

The Star

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