South Africa’s Long Walk: Political Dissent and the Spirit of Resistance at the Mandela Memorial

A section of the crowd boos President Jacob Zuma during the memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Nelius Rademan/Foto24
President Jacob Zuma received boos from some of the crowd attending the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Picture: Nelius Rademan/Foto24

Emily Bridger

The crowd’s booing of Zuma at the memorial service embodied Mandela’s oppositional legacy.

Following Nelson Mandela’s passing early this month, international media and public interest in South Africa has abounded. From the fake sign language interpreter at the memorial to President Obama’s embarrassing ‘selfie’ taken during the service, journalists have had plenty of scandals to sink their teeth into. In particular, the crowd’s booing of current South African president Jacob Zuma during last Tuesday’s memorial has struck a particular chord with journalists, twitter users, and politicians alike.

The South African media have largely painted this public display of dissent as a national embarrassment that was horribly inappropriate given its location and timing. However, the right question to ask at this critical historical juncture is not whether or not the crowd’s voicing of their frustrations with Zuma was appropriate during Mandela’s memorial. Mandela’s death should instead spark a period of national reflection, in which South Africans question not the appropriateness of the booing but what it signifies, and how Mandela’s legacy can be applied to rectify such obvious public discontent with those who have followed in his footsteps.

During the service, the MC and current Deputy President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, attempted to quell the crowd by stating, ‘Don’t embarrass us, we have overseas visitors here. We can deal with present day stuff once the visitors have gone.’ These disciplinary words were spoken in Zulu – a language not understood by the majority of foreign dignitaries and celebrities in attendance.

The embarrassment, therefore, stemmed not from the booing itself, but from the international audience before which it was displayed. With politicians from over ninety nations in attendance and thousands more watching at home, this was a moment for South Africans to display themselves to the world as a people united under Mandela’s conciliatory message. It was described as ‘our moment to shine; our moment to showcase South Africa without FIFA.’ And thus, according to a critical Daily Maverick reporter, the booing not only ‘diminished the memorial service’ but ‘diminished all of us as South Africans.’

Ramaphosa’s efforts to quiet Tuesday’s crowd therefore illuminated the disconnect between the ‘people’s memorial’ that the service was initially marketed as and the international and distinctly non-South African affair that unfolded. The memorial lacked a distinctly South African touch, ‘something that [taped] into the soul of South Africa and the continent,’ instead feeling more akin to a meeting of the United Nations or BRICS than the celebration of a nation’s hero.

So too was Mandela’s funeral in his ancestral home, Qunu, in the Eastern Cape this Sunday. No ANC t-shirts or flag waving were to be seen, nor were anti-apartheid chants to be heard: ‘Nothing that would reflect that a revolutionary was being celebrated,’ as one journalist described. The funeral was also closed to the local population of Qunu, where Mandela had expressed a desire to die and be buried.

President Obama speaking to attendees of the memorial service Nelson Mandela held in Soweto, 10 December 2013. AP
President Obama speaking to attendees of the memorial service Nelson Mandela held in Soweto, 10 December 2013. AP

Nor was the day of memorial in Soweto made a public holiday, meaning that the majority of the country’s working population were unable to attend. Emphasis during the event was placed on the speeches of foreigners, with Obama’s eulogy taking centre stage, rather than on those delivered by Mandela’s family and friends. Journalists have complained that while lesser-known foreign leaders were speaking, members of the crowd seemed uninterested, instead singing songs made famous during the anti-apartheid struggle and dancing in front of their seats.

Yet it is precisely these songs that should have been at the forefront of a service commemorating Mandela’s life. Perhaps if the memorial had been catered more for the people of South Africa, those who truly see Mandela as their father, it would have been a uniting force rather than a divisive one.

ANC Button. Collection: Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NiZA)
ANC Button.
Collection: Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NiZA)

Journalists who condemned the booing also seem to have forgotten that funerals in South Africa have long been used as platforms to express political dissent and frustrations. Footage captured during the funerals of anti-apartheid activists killed during state crackdowns in the 1980s, such as Chris Hani or Matthew Goniwe, show thousands of people massing in township streets, singing ANC songs and waving ANC flags, fists in the air, chanting ‘Viva ANC Viva!’

Even since the transition to democracy, the local commemoration of the dead often retains a distinctly political feel. At a funeral I attended in the Eastern Cape this past Spring for a man murdered under mysterious circumstances, many ANC members and officials were in attendance, some of whom gave rousing political speeches that were met by cheers or jeers from the audience.

It should therefore come as little surprise that Mandela’s memorial became an outlet for the public’s discontent with their current leader. For many South Africans today, Zuma has come to symbolise the persisting inequalities in the country, and has been at the centre of a number of recent scandals including his spending of £12 million in public funds on his private estate in Nkandla or the introduction of widely unpopular E-tolls on motorways around Johannesburg.

ANC officials and the media were whitewashing their own country’s history in their quest to emphasise the allegedly humiliating effects that the booing had on Mandela’s commemoration and the country’s international reputation. In fact, the crowd’s vocal discontent with Zuma harked back to the more fiery days of Mandela and the ANC, a part of the nation’s history that is being obliterated from popular consciousness. As historians have sought to remind us this week, Mandela was first and foremost a revolutionary, a man who constantly questioned authority and even took up arms to fight for his ideals. The crowd’s activities last Tuesday did not defile his legacy; they embodied it as they stood by a value for which Mandela was prepared to die: opposition.

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