Although he wasn't physically present, President Jacob Zuma's presence loomed large at the funeral of struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
The presidency had earlier released a statement that Zuma would not attend the funeral and memorial service in compliance with the wishes of the family.
Almost all current and former top African National Congress (ANC) leaders, including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, attended Kathrada’s send-off.
Zuma postponed today’s cabinet meeting to allow ministers to attend the funeral led by Ramaphosa.
Amidst speculation of a cabinet reshuffle that could see Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan axed, it was hard not to read into some of the comments by mourners direct and indirect criticism of Zuma’s recent actions against Gordhan as they delivered tributes to the ANC struggle stalwarts.
The biggest moment was when former president Kgalema Motlanthe quoted a letter Kathrada penned almost a year ago asking Zuma to step down, that was followed by a standing ovation and a thundering applause by mourners, including some of Zuma’s ministers like Gordhan and health minister Aaron Motsoaledi.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema and former Congress of South African Trade Unions boss Zwelinzima Vavi were also on their feet to support Kathrada’s call for Zuma to resign.
Ramaphosa and former president Thabo Mbeki did not stand.
“It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failures of politics,” Motlanthe said in his speech.
Motlanthe unsuccessfully challenged Zuma for the position of ANC president at the party’s 2012 national conference in Mangaung.
Motlanthe also bemoaned the fact that Kathrada’s letter went without any formal reply.
“Comrade Kathy took exception to the current culture of feeding frenzy, moral corruption, societal depravity, political dissolution, the gross and sleaze enveloping human mind that would put to shame even some of the vilest political orders known to human history,” Motlanthe said.
Mantashe described Kathrada as incorruptible in both his politics and personal life.
“He belonged to a generation described by (anti-apartheid activist) Yusuf Dadoo at the funeral of comrade Moses Kotane. He was incorruptible, not only in his politics but also in his personal life. He was a man you knew could never let you down or do something behind your back and never deceive you,” said Mantashe.
He said he always knew where he stood with Kathrada.
“Sometimes his words were harsh and hurtful, but never dishonest,” said Mantashe.
He said he had hoped Kathrada’s passing would assist those in the party to pull together.