Editorial: Booing Zuma - let's get beyond personalities

President Jacob Zuma. (Gallo)

President Jacob Zuma. (Gallo)

The booing of President Jacob Zuma as he spoke at the memorial for Nelson Mandela this past week has evoked contrasting responses. Some, particularly the governing party itself, condemned this expression of dislike for Zuma, pointing out that it came from a small but loud part of the audience, and from dissidents at that. 

The party and other commentators have said that, whatever problems the booers may have with the president, this memorial was not the time or place to give vent to them. The eyes of the world were upon South Africa, and specifically upon the stadium where the memorial was held; a host of world leaders were lined up to speak or to pay their respects to the deceased, and Zuma would surely have been humiliated in their eyes.
Why, some have asked, can people who oppose Zuma's presidency of the ANC not express their feelings at the ballot box?

The other view, as outlined by a letter on this page (as well as by some sensitive political commentators), is that the booers were simply using the democratic space Mandela opened up for all South Africans. In that, it is argued, they were trying to recover some of what has been lost since Mandela ceased to be our president, for his leadership helped to inaugurate a new era of openness and free democratic contestation – a space that his successors began to try to shut down. Thabo Mbeki was very hard on any dissent in the party or alliance, overriding many objections to his policies, and look how violently he reacted to some perfectly valid criticism from as august a figure as Desmond Tutu. 

Mbeki's coldness and closedness were supposed to have been defeated by Zuma at the Polokwane leadership contest in 2007: Zuma represented a populist touch Mbeki lacked and, it was alleged, possessed a more caring attitude towards the poorest of the poor – those who have not benefited from the "democracy dividend" that Mandela and his government set in motion. And yet, not so many years later, here it is Zuma ?– the "man of the people" – being booed by one segment of the people, and moreover at a commemoration of our first democratic president.

However one feels about that protest action, its wider implications should not be missed. It's about leadership and what that means to South Africans. 

More than one obituarist or tribute-payer has contrasted Mandela's leadership with Zuma's, finding the latter wanting - as presumably the people who booed him do. That much is pretty obvious. It is also an obvious point, but one worth making again, that this kind of political protest – boo politics, let us say – was very much a part of the campaign style of the Zuma supporters who ousted Mbeki, and of the erstwhile ANC Youth League under Julius Malema; that is, the youth league in its mooning phase. The politics of reason and debate were shoved aside very unceremoniously by the politics of booing and mooning, so Zuma shouldn't complain if he is now being hoist by his own petard.

It is deeply ironic, likewise, that Mbeki has stepped in to the gap that is now very visible since Mandela's demise: that of the elder statesman, the one who can hold us together rather than fracturing the party and the populace into warring groups. Speaking to full houses at Mandela commemorations, Mbeki has openly raised the leadership issue, saying it is time to "raise the bar" in that respect. (He got a standing ovation.) He has also spoken of "national reconciliation" as a big part of the Mandela legacy – and one that remains to be fulfilled. This is ironic because it was Mbeki, as president from 1999, who did his best to move beyond Mandela's politics of reconciliation and to shift the emphasis to transformation, as well as in many ways reviving a racialised political discourse. 

Yet all this is to play into the politics of personality – as the booers of Zuma did at the memorial. We are justly celebrating Madiba's huge achievement, and thus we are celebrating him as a person. Many writers have tried to make the necessary links between what Mandela did and who he was; we are still arguing, in fact, about precisely who he was, mostly because he was so many things to so many different people. But we should not be turning a conversation about his legacy into a contest of personalities, whether we like them or hate them. 

Voters will no doubt always be drawn to one set of politics or another by the personalities who represent them in the public eye, but the solidification of our democracy requires that we go beyond the charm or lack of charm (or any other particular personal quality) of any individual, however powerful or promising. What Mandela knew, and what he and the other leaders of the transition insisted upon, was that democracy requires working institutions: it needs the rule of law and, cascading down from the Constitution as the supreme law, the rights and duties that include the chapter 9 bodies mandated to keep an eye on government, on human rights, and so forth. The public protector would be a prime example of such an institution, as would an independent judiciary and (dare we say it) a free media. In a democracy, government must be accountable to the citizenry. 

Instead of judging Zuma by the boos, or Mbeki by the cheers, or even Mandela by the tears, we should evaluate them by what they actively did to build and strengthen the institutions that are the organs of democracy – Parliament, the judiciary, the public protector, the prosecuting authorities – or whether they undermined them. 

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