Zuma at the memorial in Johannesburg. (Reuters)
Johannesburg, Dec. 10: South African President Jacob Zuma was booed and jeered at the memorial to anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela today, a major public humiliation in front of other world leaders six months before national elections.
In India, many would have been reminded of the plight of Suresh Kalmadi who was booed when he addressed the Commonwealth Games inauguration ceremony in New Delhi. Congressman and organising committee boss Kalmadi had run into corruption charges in the run-up to the games, portending a curse that has since bedevilled the Manmohan Singh government.
Today, when it came to his turn to speak, Zuma struggled against a barrage of hoots and whistles as he approached the lectern. A traditional praise singer sought to enthuse the crowd before the South African leader spoke. But the abuse continued, and Zuma’s face on the huge screens was soon replaced with images of Mandela as music blasted through the speakers.
After a few minutes, Zuma began delivering his remarks to a restive but quieting crowd. Many began leaving the stadium, streaming down concrete ramps and into the relentless rain. Reading from prepared remarks, Zuma praised Mandela, saying “there is no one like Madiba. He was one of a kind”.
Zuma, who has ruled Africa’s biggest economy since 2009, had been hoping to get a boost from the wave of national emotion triggered by Mandela’s death on Thursday, aged 95.
His African National Congress (ANC) government has been facing violent labour unrest and protests over persisting poverty, crime and unemployment.
But the ANC is still expected to comfortably win the elections to be held in April or May.
Some in the crowd accompanied the boos for Zuma with thumbs-down gestures and rotating hand movements, the sign for a substitution in a soccer match. In contrast, President Barack Obama received a roaring ovation, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and UN chief Ban Ki-moon were also cheered.
“Mandela had a vision, Mandela lived that vision. But what Zuma speaks, he doesn’t live,” said Funeka Gingcara-Sithole, 31, reflecting the mood of the Zuma critics in the stadium. “He should do the honourable thing and resign,” she said.
Zuma remained stony faced during the hostile reaction and organisers at one point used a choir to try to drown it out.
The mourning for Mandela has distracted attention from corruption scandals affecting Zuma.
But memories of the former President’s five-year tenure up to 1999 have reminded many just how distant Zuma’s South Africa still is from the “Rainbow Nation” ideal of shared prosperity and social peace that Mandela proclaimed after his 1994 election.
South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet.