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Boos were democracy in action

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President Jacob Zuma addresses the mourners at FNB Stadium during the Mandela memorial.

If a few billion people happened to overhear us bickering and squabbling, then so be it, says Sisonke Msimang.

Durban - Jacob Zuma’s treatment at the FNB Stadium should not be read as a referendum on his leadership. It was most definitely a kick in the guts from an angry Gauteng public, but the booing should also be understood in the context of the factionalism that has defined the ANC for the last seven years or so.

The toxic state of affairs in the ANC means that people behave badly whenever they can. Polokwane solidified this culture. Jacob Zuma reaped what he sowed.

Those protesting against Zuma on Tuesday were emboldened both by popular urban sentiment and by in-fighting within the ANC’s provincial structures.

In other words, the heckling is not necessarily a sign that Zuma is facing a broad-based leadership challenge. The crowd would have had a very different feel in his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, or in the Free State or Mpumalanga. Zuma knows this, as do senior members of his party.

This event is unlikely to have an influence on the outcomes of next year’s elections, or even on internal dynamics within the party. It is well known that the president isn’t popular in Gauteng. At the same time, what happened at FNB was symbolically important and as such it is worth examining in some detail.

Some have argued that the booing was not appropriate given the national significance and solemnity of the occasion. I disagree.

What happened at FNB affirmed the commitment of South Africans to genuine democracy. Should we care that world leaders were present? Absolutely not. The conversation at the memorial was an internal one, and if neighbours, indeed if a few billion people, happened to overhear us bickering and squabbling, then so be it.

Part of why I loved the irreverence the crowd displayed was that I have been troubled all week by the excessive excitement of South Africans about the “international attention” this moment brings us. We are obsessed with what the world thinks of us.

As a result, the government often chooses politics over principle. This event was no different. We opted to use the event to affirm our relations with Brics rather than to focus on the songs, laughter and fierceness that Mandela represented.

Madiba may have been admired and supported the world over, but he was ours. And given that he was ours, why not have a ceremony that reflected us rather than the strategic priorities of our geopolitical blah blah? Why not invite a group of born-frees to reflect on what it meant to be born in 1994? Where was the kwaito generation? Where was Zelda la grange? Where were Hugh Masekela and Thandiswa Mazwai? Where were the images of Madiba as drawn by Zapiro and why were they not beamed across the stadium?

Instead of pulling together an event that would make us weep and smile and jive like only we can, we opted to have a bunch of speeches by leaders of a political bloc that didn’t even exist for much of Madiba’s life, ignoring the frontline states. Instead, we gave Obama the spotlight. Let us not forget that – suave as the man may be – his state wasn’t our friend in the bad old days.

As Madiba once said, “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.”

The ANC and government bigwigs were so caught up in pandering to this as a moment for ‘Brand South Africa’, so busy prostrating themselves in front of CNN and BBC, that they forgot that Nelson Mandela’s memorial was first and foremost about his family and his country.

So the decision of many in the crowd to subvert the charade, to refuse to paper over the cracks, to seize the moment and be precisely who we are – a city public that is disenchanted, angry and hilariously committed to politics – made me very, very proud.

In 2002, Madiba forced his way into an NEC meeting after publicly breaking ranks with the then cabinet of Thabo Mbeki over its refusal to listen to people, and its stance on Aids. In a charged meeting, he was bitterly attacked. Some even suggested that he wanted to rule from the grave. Many of those people who attacked him then (he never addressed an NEC again) continue to be part of the ANC leadership today.

Given his enduring sense of humour and irreverence and his commitment to truth-telling, I have no doubt that Madiba would have been very pleased to see the madly wonderful swirl of a democracy that he helped to midwife on display . Long live the spirit of comrade Nelson Mandela, long live!

* Sisonke Msimang is with the Sisonke Gender Justice Network.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.


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