10 Dec 2013

Mandela memorial: why the crowds booed President Zuma

With the world’s leaders looking on, it was a chance for South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to shine. So why did some of his countrymen choose to publicly humiliate him?

Jacob Zuma is booed at Mandela memorial (Image: Reuters)

In front of 90 world leaders – including Barack Obama and David Cameron – the crowds booed Mr Zuma persistently. They stuck their thumbs down and even used rotating hand movements – normally used to call for substitutes at football matches.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu scolded the crowd. “You must show the world you are disciplined. I want to hear a pin drop,” he said.

But it was too late. The crowd had already showed the world what they thought.

Moments earlier, they had sung African National Congress (ANC) songs in honour of the late Nelson Mandela.

The booing surprised even the South African media, with the Mail and Guardian reporting: “This is an incredibly interesting development. The theory went that Mandela’s legacy celebrations should bolster Zuma’s image, who flaunted his closeness to Mandela.

“The boos come on the back of loud cheers for former president Mbeki and even [the] last president under the previous apartheid regime De Klerk.

“Is the tide turning so close to elections?”

Grass roots ‘frustrated’

Mr Zuma is head of the African National Congress (ANC) – the party that led South Africa out of apartheid, and Mandela championed until the end.

Like Mandela, Mr Zuma was incarcerated at Robben Island as an ANC activist in the 1960s. He spent 10 years behind bars for his political beliefs.

Mr Zuma’s rise to the head of the ANC was a strategic move to oust Mr Mandela’s successor President Thabo Mbeki – who was seen as too intellectual and aloof to connect with the common man.

Mr Zuma – a self-taught herd boy – was thought to be more populist, more in tune with the average African man.

Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, told Channel 4 News: “What’s surprising about today’s booing is that it wasn’t a political rally. It shows that grass roots South Africans are very frustrated at his behaviour.”

Previously, Mr Zuma has blamed any negative reports on his behaviour on the liberal media, Mr Vines explained, adding: “How can he deny it now?”.

Grass roots South Africans voted for Mr Zuma in 2009, but Tuesday’s memorial service for Mandela reminded many just how distant Mr Zuma’s South Africa still is from the rainbow nation ideal of shared prosperity, reduced poverty and social peace.

The average white household still earns six times more than the average black one.

‘He should resign’

From the stadium Funeka Gingcara-Sithold, 31, said: “Mandela had a vision, Mandela lived that vision. But what Zuma speaks, he doesn’t live. He should do the honourable thing and resign.”

In the week that Mandela died, South African media banded together to publish evidence from an unpublished report that looks into the staggering $20m spent on Mr Zuma’s private home.

The report includes details of cash spent on swimming pools and an underpass and housing for his cattle.

Both Mr Zuma and the ANC have denied corruption allegations – Mr Zuma claims some $5m of the money spent came from “gifts” to him personally. The rest is taxpayers’ money that he claims was used to improve security.

Read more: The calm above South Africa’s storm

This, just the latest in a string of controversies involving Mr Zuma – both before taking control of the ANC in 2007 and from 2009 as president of South Africa.

In 2005, a judge found that there was a generally corrupt relationship between Mr Zuma and his close friend, the businessman Schabir Shaik.

Though the case was dropped against Mr Zuma, Martin Legassick, former professor of history at the University of the Western Cape, said that the question of Mr Zuma’s innocence “was still unresolved” as he took charge of the party.

In 2006, Mr Zuma was acquitted of a raping an HIV-positive family friend. His statement during the trial – that after having unprotected sex with the woman he showered to prevent infection – earned him global ridicule.

In 2010 he admitted fathering a child out of wedlock. The move was frowned upon in traditional Zulu culture – a culture which includes polygamy, which he famously adheres to. Mr Zuma has married six times, which has endeared him to some of the population, Mr Legassick said, but which others find “at odds” with modern society.

‘Vivid contrast’ to cheers for Obama

Despite all these revelations – and in the face of criticisms that he failed to act to prevent the Marikana mine massacre in August 2012 – Mr Zuma saw off a leadership challenge from his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe in December 2012.

The party is aligned with Mr Zuma, who is running for re-election next year, and the ANC – with its two-thirds majority – is expected to comfortably win the elections.

Will Tuesday’s booing change anything? Possibly not on the domestic front – as Mr Vines said: “The sad reality is that the ANC is strong enough to ignore public opinion.”

However, Mr Vines points out that the booing contrasted “vividly” with the standing ovation the crowd gave US President Barack Obama.

Obama’s struggle for equality as an African American is something many South Africans identify with, he said, adding that the contrast will show the world how “out of step” Mr Zuma is with his own people.

South Africa’s relationship with the US is “prickly and fractious”, said Mr Vines, adding: “Probably in the short term this won’t have helped”.

It was a point noted by Mmanaledi Mataboge, a reporter from the Mail and Guardian, who wrote: “This could send a wrong signal to international leaders who came to pay their last respects to Mandela, about how firmly in charge Zuma is of South Africa.”