The boos for Jacob Zuma represent Mandela's success

South Africa is an open democracy where the people expect better government

December 15, 2013 7:00AM ET
President Jacob Zuma addresses the media and nation about the plans for former President Nelson Mandela on December 6, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nicolene Olckers/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama mesmerized the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, bringing forth loud acclaim. But there was one sour note: The crowd loudly booed South African President Jacob Zuma.

For many South Africans, Zuma represents some of the nation’s least appealing qualities. They consider their deeply flawed president and faltering government and mutter dark thoughts about a failing state and a banana republic. The booing was perhaps impolite, but I suspect Mandela would have quietly approved of South Africans making it known to the ruling African National Congress and the world that they expect more from their president and their government than they’re getting right now.

It was Mandela, after all, who had told the congress of the trade union federation COSATU in 1999: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”

In fact, the boos represent, ironically, the success of the South Africa that Mandela fathered, a country where the people expect more of their government and are free to voice their displeasure.

Slow progress

Most South Africans look at each other and see people still dreaming of a truly just and prosperous state where they can realize their full potential as human beings and citizens.

At present, South Africans are angry. They resent continued inequality in society, poverty, unemployment, corruption, weak delivery of services and police brutality. It wasn’t supposed to be like this 20 years after liberation. With the start South Africa got under the Mandela presidency, the country should have progressed much further, and South Africans know this.

And yet it is also true that virtually every South African citizen is much better off now, in terms of quality of life and human dignity, than in 1994, when Mandela became president. Four million houses have been built for the poor; 17 million people receive social grants totaling around $13 billion per annum; nine out of 10 households have piped fresh water; fewer than 5 percent of citizens live on less than $2 a day (compared with 17 percent in 2002); and some 5 million black adults are now categorized as middle class. 

Education in the black townships and squatter camps is a dismal failure, the gap between rich and poor is too big, and senior leaders are embroiled in one scandal after another.

By these and other important measures, South Africa has made great strides in the past generation. It is a better place to live, in many respects, than it was in 1994. It is today probably the most open society, in every sense of the word, in the developing world: Citizens are not afraid to speak their mind openly on any topic; newspapers, radio and television “speak truth to power.” The government is held accountable; activists mobilize without fear of prosecution.

When Mandela stepped out of jail, helped deliver a negotiated settlement with a model constitution and became the country’s first democratic president, he made South Africans believe in themselves and their potential. He made his people confident and ambitious. He was a product of African and South African culture and history; he came from among us. And he had become the most revered and loved human being in the world. Presidents of the most powerful nations fell over their feet to be in his presence. We were no longer just another typical “Third World” state. We deserved to be among the best and most successful in the world as a nation.

Perhaps one day we’ll look back and say the leader who came closest to embodying who and what South Africans really are and aspire to be was Nelson Mandela. 

Mandela's solid foundation

The words most uttered by South Africans since Mandela’s death are “integrity,” “vision” and “leadership.” They see precious little of these qualities right now. Even senior ANC leaders acknowledge that a Mandela in possession of his full mental faculties would have been deeply disappointed in the state of the South African nation. Education in the black townships and squatter camps is a dismal failure, the gap between rich and poor is still too big, and the president and senior government leaders are embroiled in one scandal after the other.

Mandela’s passing has led to much introspection and reflection on the promise of his presidency. As a result, the dormant discontent with the present leadership of the ANC is now boiling over. Many, perhaps even most, of those who booed Zuma on Tuesday wore ANC clothing or T-shirts.

But the real catalysts for the negative outpouring were the shooting and killing of 34 mine workers at Marikana in 2012 and the government’s lukewarm reaction to it, as well as the currently brewing scandal of Zuma allowing more than 200 million rand (about $20 million) of state money to be spent on his private rural homestead.

Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, got the same treatment at an ANC congress in 2007. He was booed and shouted down, with delegates making the soccer hand signal for a player to be replaced — a gesture also seen on Tuesday. He was then voted out as party leader and replaced by Zuma. The same Mbeki received huge cheers from the crowd at the Mandela memorial – as did the last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, the man who released Mandela from prison.

The political temperature in South Africa has risen visibly during the past year and will increase even more as the campaigns for next year’s general election gain momentum.

Despite the recent political grumbling, the foundation laid by the Mandela presidency is as solid as ever, guaranteeing the country’s stability. Unlike Egypt, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, South Africa does not have a military looking over the shoulders of the elected leaders. The constitution remains untouched, as does its effective watchdog, the Constitutional Court. The judiciary is independent and functioning properly. The autonomy of the Independent Electoral Commission, tasked with overseeing elections, is unquestioned. The media are vigorous and independent, and have warded off most of the present government’s attempts to curtail their freedom. South Africa’s institutions are strong and its economy fundamentally sound under present international circumstances. Race relations on a person-to-person level on the streets and the factory floors and in the offices, suburbs, churches and sports stadiums are healthier than could have been anticipated 20 years ago. Just as important, civil society has found its voice again, and activism around poverty, landlessness, HIV/AIDS, education, free speech and gender equality are proving very effective.

Most South Africans are adamant that they will not compromise on the dreams and promises of the Mandela era. They see the moving tributes from every corner of the world and the spirit of unity and hope that his passing engendered inside the country as proof that his values and vision live on in South Africa’s imperfect government and the people’s expectations for improvement.

Max du Preez is a South African journalist and author of "Rough Guide to Nelson Mandela" and "A Rumour of Spring – South Africa 20 Years after Democracy." He is Extraordinary Professor of Media Studies at Northwest University and a Fellow of Fort Hare University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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