At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela last month, President Jacob Zuma was jeered, booed and heckled by some sections of the crowd in front of tens of heads of State who were in the country to unite with us in our moment of grief. Obviously, the conduct was shameful and it betrayed a serious lack of maturity on the part of people who lacked a sense of occasion.
As shameful as the humiliation of the President was, or because it was so embarrassing, we still need to make an attempt at understanding what it was about. I suspect that African National Congress (ANC) deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was spot-on when he implored the crowd to reserve its ire for a day when the country is not hosting the world. When he called for discipline, he also indicated that there would be other opportunities for the crowd to vent if, in anger, there were things they wanted to communicate to the ANC leadership.
Ramaphosa was right. Those who heckled the President wanted to send a message to both him and the ANC. But why choose to do this at a solemn event, the memorial service of a global icon? It seems to me that there are several possibilities which together or separately may explain why the crowd was deterred not even by the grief and deep sense of loss which, at the time, engulfed both South Africa and the world.
For starters, theirs was probably an attempt to communicate the perception that neither the President nor his party, the ANC, are walking in the footsteps of Madiba. In other words, the heckling may have been about the perceived or real gap between what Madiba stood for and what the ANC has become. If this is the case, it may also be about the performance of the ANC govern- ment and that of the economy. But more important may be feelings of insignificance on the part of citizens that have been engendered by the responses of government and leaders of the ANC and the alliance to the public’s unhappiness about issues such as e-tolls and the Nkandla security upgrade imbroglio. In short, the humiliation of the President in the presence of many other heads of State may have happened simply because citizens feel they do not matter and that the ruling party is taking them for granted.
One thing is certain, though – there are citizens who are unhappy about the President and the ANC. All that is left is for us to quibble about the number. Further, the ANC has a choice. It can confront the fact that there are citizens, including those who traditionally vote ANC, who are unhappy with the ruling party and the President. If the ANC chooses to deny this, it must do so publicly and acknowledge it privately, since denying it in both spaces might mean the party is not fully prepared, at a tactical and strategic level, for the electoral challenges it might face this year. If what I suspect is borne out by its own internal research, the findings must be debated honestly because the alternative could be quite dangerous for the President and the party unity.
As I have said elsewhere, and if my sources have been telling me the truth, there has, for many months now, been a whispering campaign behind the back of the President about what some in the ANC see as the danger of fielding him as the Presidential candidate of the ruling party. What I did not share is the fact that the whispering campaign is also about the belief on the part of some inside and outside the ANC that he is not going to complete his second term. But what should worry the ANC and the President is the fact that some do not even want him to be inaugurated for a second term.
But, given the level of intelligence that should be available to a head of State, I suspect very strongly that the President has known about all of this for some time. In the process of considering his options, he must not forget that, under certain circumstances, even the most loyal of his supporters will abandon him in order to save his or her political career. In short, faced with the choice between him and their careers, some of his allies will enjoin themselves to the campaigns of his political enemies.
With respect to the elections and continued support for the ANC, and if the whispering campaign becomes a fully fledged political campaign in the context of, among others, of the work of the Public Protector, the ANC may have to choose between votes and the President.
However, the President may be Julius Caesar but I am no soothsayer.