President Jacob Zuma, who faces national elections in 2014, should be worried. He was booed at Nelson Mandela’s December 10 state memorial service. John Allen reports that according to a local news channel, “the large monitors in the stadium were turned off to stop the boos every time a camera rested on Zuma.”
Those who were cheered appear to have been almost everybody else who has played a big role in post-apartheid South Africa: former chief of state Thabo Mbeki, who was defeated by Zuma; Kgalema Motlanthe, also defeated by Zuma in a contest for ANC party leadership earlier in the year; Winnie Mandela, Zuma’s critic from the left; George Bizos, Mandela’s lawyer; even F.W. de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa. According to Allen, the loudest cheers of all were for President Barack Obama.
South Africa is a free country with absolute constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. The boos mean something. They may reflect dissatisfaction about service delivery in the townships. I think it is more likely that they reflected the yawning gap between the Mandela vision being celebrated at the event and the Zuma reality. Mandela was being remembered for his integrity and his all-inclusive leadership. Everybody knows that Mandela left office after one term as chief of state, alone among African leaders. His lifestyle, appropriate for a former chief of state, was not lavish. Methodist bishop Ivan Abrahams encompassed the mood of the crowd when he stated that “what brings us here today is not so much grief but love.”
Zuma, by contrast, has faced rape charges, is still subject to an ongoing judicial procedure involving corruption, and apparently spent huge amounts of public money on his private compound. And his government is perceived in some quarters as Zulu-dominated. According to Allen, Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of Thabo but known for the independence of his views, told BBC World "he wasn’t surprised by the crowd’s actions. South Africans expect their leaders to keep to the straight and narrow, and would take whatever chance they had to tell them when they didn’t.”
Zuma’s current unpopularity will not translate into an ANC defeat at the 2014 polls. South Africa’s presidents are elected by the majority party in parliament, not directly by the people, and the ANC is likely to retain its majority. But, Zuma may contribute to a decline in the ANC’s percentage of that vote.