President Thabo Mbeki was snubbed at the reburial memorial service of ANC hero Moses Mabhida on Saturday afternoon as hundreds of Jacob Zuma supporters began leaving Pietermaritzburg's Harry Gwala stadium when Mbeki took to the podium.
The crowd, having just listened to Zuma's speech, began booing the president and started singing Zuma's trademark song, uMshini Wami. ANC heavyweights attempted to avert an embarrassing situation and promptly locked the gates to the stadium, preventing the crowd from leaving.
Zuma tried to control the situation, taking the microphone from Mbeki, begging the crowd:
"Comrades please, I am asking you to sit down. Comrade President Mbeki is speaking and we must listen."
At the same time, KwaZulu-Natal ANC members, Senzo Mchunu and Safety and Security MEC Bheki Cele, were seen walking among the crowd to quieten members. Even though a huge group gathered at the gate, they were not allowed out.
Some in the crowd then broke out into song. A group remained at the gate while police sharpshooters stood on the stadium roof ready for action. Mbeki calmly received the microphone from Zuma and continued his speech.
ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama, in a statement last night, condemned the behaviour of what he said was a small section of the crowd: "Such behaviour is unacceptable for members of the ANC and alliance, and completely alien to the culture of the movement.
"Those who seek to instigate such incidents must know that they are violating the culture and values of the movement."
Mumblings from politicians and senior officials could be heard and many were embarrassed by the crowd's behaviour. Earlier, when Zuma was introduced, the crowd erupted into cheers and song, while Mbeki's introduction did not even raise a round of applause.
Even when the presidential entourage left the stadium, Zuma's black Jeep travelled ahead of the president's Range Rover, with hundreds of people singing "Zuma, Zuma, my president".
All through the proceedings Zuma and Mbeki kept their distance, even though they had been seated next to each other on stage. Zuma constantly leaned towards the SACP's Blade Nzimande, while Mbeki seemed joined at the shoulder to KwaZulu-Natal Premier S'bu Ndebele. Several cabinet ministers, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jeff Radebe, Mosiuoa Lekota, Sidney Mufamadi and Director General in the Presidency, Frank Chikane, were among the 1 000-strong crowd that turned out.
On stage with Mbeki, Zuma, Ndebele and Nzimande, was Sanco's Ruth Bhengu, Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi, and Mabhida's daughter, Thuthukile Mabhida-Poowe.
Zuma gave a poignant speech which recalled how Mabhida had died in his arms.
"Mabhida was a man who taught many of us, he was the one who made us into what we are. He showed us how hard-working we should be and how we should serve the people in an amazing way."
Mbeki said he wished to thank Mabhida's wife, Linah, and children. "I thank you for giving Baba Mabhida to the nation to make sure the country was freed and to have the capacity to build ourselves. Those of us in government, if loyal like Baba Mabhida, will see to it that it is indeed our place to serve the people of South Africa and not for self-enrichment."
Vavi, however, lashed out at politicians who used their position to enrich themselves. He said Cosatu was worried about a new culture of class materialism that was overtaking the culture of the majority.
Commenting on the snub of Mbeki, political commentators said that until the ANC resolved the thorny succession issue, these embarrassing scenes would repeat themselves.
Last year, the ANC top brass was forced to plead with unruly Zuma followers to stop booing Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as she tried to address a rally in KwaMashu, while more recently, the poorly attended historic visit by Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh Stadium was thrown into turmoil when pro-Zuma supporters walked out on Mbeki at Kingsmead.
Political analyst Prof Adam Habib said, "We've seen this happen at other points. The ANC leadership has been very critical about this, but we certainly haven't seen the last of it. Until the succession battle is sorted out, we're going to see similar kinds of things."
His counterpart, Aubrey Matshiqi, said the cold reception given Mbeki yesterday was hardly surprising, given the way many of Zuma's followers perceived South Africa's head of state. "With regard to support for Zuma, KwaZulu-Natal is the focal point of the succession battle, which doesn't mean that JZ's support is limited to KwaZulu-Natal. In the eyes of many, Mbeki is to blame for JZ's legal and political troubles."
Matshiqi added that as long as Mbeki addressed the public in areas that were considered to be Zuma's strongholds, the prevailing trend would continue.
As such, Mbeki would have to choose carefully where he spoke in the future. "To avoid this hostile reception, he will have to go to parts of KwaZulu-Natal that will not expose this anti-Mbeki sentiment," Matshiqi said.
However, Senzo Mchunu, provincial secretary-general of the ANC, downplayed the crowd behaviour. "The crowd was behaved," he said. "Yes, some people left, but it was not to the extent that it was embarrassing. It was not like everybody stood up and left while the president was speaking."
Asked why they sang Zuma's signature tune, he said. "That's an ordinary song. There may be a situation where there are certain things that we dislike, but it was not embarrassing. They could have behaved themselves better than they did."
Mabhida died in 1986 while in exile in Mozambique. Earlier this year a decision was taken to exhume his body remains and bring it back to South Africa.