The heckling of President Zuma at the mass memorial of Nelson Mandela contains echoes of a similar humiliation that Thabo Mbeki suffered, writes Craig Dodds.
Cape Town - The ghost of a smile played across the face of Thabo Mbeki as the camera lingered on him to a chorus of cheers from the crowd at FNB Stadium on Tuesday.
Perhaps he was simply acknowledging the adulation.
Though he was never the crowd-pleasing sort of politician, Mbeki has been a political outcast since his crushing defeat in the contest for leadership of the ANC at the hands of President Jacob Zuma.
It would have been ungracious to ignore the show of affection at the official memorial for Nelson Mandela. But he may also have been savouring the ironies of fortune, and recalling the humiliation he suffered – similar to that of Zuma on Tuesday – seven years ago, and also at a funeral.
It was December 2006, at the reburial of another struggle luminary – Moses Mabhida – in Zuma’s backyard.
Zuma had just finished speaking at the Harry Gwala Stadium in Pietermaritzburg and it was Mbeki’s turn. As he took the microphone, some in the crowd began streaming out of the stadium, prompting ANC officials to lock the gates.
Others began to boo. Then they launched into a lusty rendition of Zuma’s trademark song, Awulethe umshini wami (Bring me my machine gun), as Mbeki tried to speak.
It was a sign of things to come, and culminated in Mbeki’s downfall at the ANC’s Polokwane conference of 2007, with a similar chorus of booing and the strains of Umshini wami drowning Mbeki out when he tried to deliver his political report.
On Tuesday, the wheel turned full circle, and Zuma, too, must have felt the hand of fate on his shoulder.
Could this be the beginning of the end for the president who seemed unassailable just a year ago, following his triumph at Mangaung?
The ANC has desperately tried to portray the events at the memorial as the work of an unruly few, possibly part of an orchestrated plan to embarrass Zuma.
The SACP went further.
On Wednesday it issued a statement calling for the “ring leaders” to be “exposed, named, shamed and be driven out of the ranks of our movement” – acknowledging as the ANC had not that the dissenters had come from within.
But those who were at the stadium tell a different story – that the booing was largely spontaneous, and that much of the huge crowd participated without being prompted by anything other than the appearance of Zuma’s increasingly grim face on the screen.
Nor was the crowd out of tune with the rest of the country, according to Professor Susan Booysen of the Wits Graduate School of Public and Development Management.
“I would definitely say it is ANC supporters that are angry. It may be there were some EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) supporters amongst them, but from research I have done I have reason to believe anger with the current leadership is a widespread sentiment among South African voters, ANC supporters, all the same.”
While some have speculated the shaming of Zuma could have been the product of tense relations with the party’s Gauteng leadership, who supported his rival Kgalema Motlanthe at the Mangaung conference, Booysen said disaffection with the party president and his sidekicks was prevalent “across provinces”.
“I don’t know whether they would all stand up and boo, but they all share very limited respect for the president, if any, and they like the ANC, they do not like the current leadership,” she said.
Despite mounting evidence he was a liability, however, the ANC was highly unlikely to ditch him as its presidential candidate for next year’s elections, partly because its internal election process was too far advanced for it to change tack now.
“It could cause them to strategise more, to try to control better, and in the process they will actually be weakening the ANC. But I just see the current incumbents and Zuma’s cordon of protectors so firmly entrenched that I do not see how that change is going to happen,” Booysen said, referring to the dominance of the president’s backers in the party’s national executive committee, its highest decision-making body between conferences.
Zuma’s enemies would know better than to stick their heads over the parapet just yet.
“Very often people take these routes because it’s difficult to express your opinions in the ANC and the group that supports Zuma is very firmly in charge,” Booysen said.
“So I think we see that the anti-Zuma sentiment is spilling out of the ANC, but it is not being captured by another political party, because it’s not available to be captured by another political party.”
ANC voters would remain loyal despite their frustrations with Zuma.
This could be very destructive in the long run, though, because the negative sentiment was not being channelled into institutional forms of opposition.
Zuma’s minders would be on high alert for potential trouble on the campaign trail, allowing him to appear only in carefully controlled environments where the crowds had been vetted, effectively hiding the president from the broader public.
While this would have limited the impact of an effective leader, Zuma was now so compromised that in his case it was a question of protecting an ineffective leader.
Tuesday’s events had “broken the spell” the country had been under since Mandela’s death, in which it had been possible for Cosatu arch foes Zwelinzima Vavi and S’dumo Dlamini to walk hand in hand to the Mandela house.
Now the gloves were off and after the elections, Zuma would need to watch his back.
“I think this is so volatile, the ANC will be entering a most volatile term in the next five years, because Zuma is on thin ground and, in politics, if it’s strategically possible and some grouping smells blood, there will be a political killing,” Booysen said.
Zuma need only consider the fate of Mbeki to know what that could spell for him.
* The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers