The jeering of President Zuma at Mandela’s memorial raises the spectre of violence in our political discourse, writes Mzukisi Qobo.
Pretoria - The booing of President Jacob Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at FNB Stadium came as a surprise to many who held a view that the president was a man of the people and was popular among the masses.
The howls of disapproval directed at Zuma were for the most part spontaneous and were preceded by a cheerful welcoming of former president Thabo Mbeki on to the stage, with the crowds clearly sending their affection in his direction.
Yet still the behaviour of the crowd was baffling. Every time Zuma’s image was projected on to the large screen hugging the stadium, there would be thunderous sounds of rejection.
Cyril Ramaphosa, who was the programme director for the occasion, called for discipline and pleaded to no avail with the protesters.
This seems to have added fuel to the fire as they must have been thinking it hypocritical of him to make such a plea given the growing fungi of ill-discipline in the leadership of the ANC.
One does not need to agree with the behaviour of those who expressed their anger at Zuma to understand where they come from.
In the short period of time that Zuma has been president, just under five years, much pain has been inflicted on the country.
We have had three credit downgrades, the employment situation has not improved, and an extractive system of e-tolls has been added as another burden to break our backs.
And the incidents of corruption and maladministration have hardly abated as the auditor-general’s yearly reports show, and Zuma has allowed an opulent palace to be built for himself with taxpayers’ money in the face of all the economic strain we are feeling as a nation.
All of this combines to create the kind of unsavoury spectacle that one witnessed at the FNB Stadium. However, having a grievance does not mean that any instrument is appropriate for communicating it. It is not that the kind of behaviour exhibited by the crowds is wrong because it was played out at a memorial service or in front of foreign dignitaries, but that it poisons our public engagement.
Many leaders of the ANC have in the past used funerals as platforms to attack each other, and with no repercussions. It is just that this kind of discourse – whether perpetrated by the leaders or the crowds – is an assault on decency in how we should deliberate in a democratic context. It suggests degenerate politics and could redefine our public engagement in ways that could elevate violence.
Booing does not promote dialogue in the sense that your interlocutor can understand what you are trying to communicate or argue.
It does not give your opponent an opportunity for a reasonable response. In this defective communication there is neither an argument nor an intelligible articulation of grievance where a space for compromise can even open up.
Booing and shouting are terrifying tools of engagement.
They are also cowardly, as there is no clear face representing a particular set of views. Second, if we applaud this emerging subculture of violent engagement we may find it escalating into a dangerous mudslinging across various dimensions of our politics.
There is a thin line between booing and shouting; and still thinner between shouting and throwing of missiles. It is a behaviour that feeds into our culture of violence.
We already witness forms of violence across different domains of our society from domestic households to neighbourhoods, and to a much wider public space, where we seem unable to manage our temperament and easily reach for instruments that inflict maximum pain on others.
When two or more people have a fundamental disagreement, all of a sudden it seems easier to say “I will kill you” instead of “let’s talk about this”. There is an inability to talk to each other and argue our points with a measure of balance between passion and reason. Various other forms of violence are also pervasive in social media, where instead of engaging dispassionately in argument people resort to throwing insults and labels.
It may be that many feel vindicated that pain has been inflicted on Zuma; and that the people have spoken. But what does that mean? It is not clear who has spoken and what they have communicated.
The danger is that this will become a permanent feature of our politics, possibly escalating to violence. In years past it was Mbeki who endured the scorn of the booing crowds – Zuma supporters – in the presence of a foreign dignitary.
It is wrong for leaders of the ANC such as David Makhura to suggest that those who booed Zuma at the memorial are not ANC members. He was right in condemning such behaviour in the strongest possible terms. Beyond that, he should be asking what lessons can be drawn from this to understand how people feel about Zuma and the ANC, and what is needed to fix things before they worsen. Recently, it was DA leader Helen Zille who was booed in front of Zuma by ANC supporters, and none of the ANC leaders condemned such behaviour.
Tomorrow we may just witness the lynching of intellectuals by the mobs or even attacks on ordinary members of society by those who are appropriating instruments of violence to get their points across.
It does not matter whether it is Zuma or Zille who are at the receiving end; we should agree that there are better ways of resolving political differences than booing.
As the commentator Eusebius Mckaiser often argues, we need to learn how to think critically and debate decently. We have a space to highlight our unhappiness through peaceful protests, by exercising the power of the pen, and by asserting our political choices through the ballot. Resorting to violence, whether in the form of shouting or throwing of missiles, will damage our democratic discourse.
* Mzukisi Qobo teaches politics at the University of Pretoria.
** The views expressed heer are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.