Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

So we booed the president…

By Melo Magolego

On December 10, 2013, I, like thousands of others, descended on the pavements of Johannesburg. We made a long walk, a pilgrimage to the memorial of uTata Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium. As we bore witness to the dignitaries present, the unrelenting rain made us feel as though we were in a very big and expensive swimming pool.

Then without much warning the booing of President Jacob Zuma started. I cringed and sat there unsure. Each time his face came up on the screen the booing would strike again and again — leaving no doubt about what was happening. Some in the crowd said people should not do this when the purpose of the event was to honour the dead. And I thought — since when? They also said we have international guests — I thought so what?

There are historical, political, constitutional and normative reasons through which to understand the booing. Firstly, South Africans during the repressive state of emergencies in the 1980s, and even before, used funerals as political instruments. They would sing songs to rally public opinion on certain political agendas. A classic song in this vain would be “Hamba Kahle Mkhonto”. This politicisation has never been seen as unacceptable by the then repressed and oppressed blacks. Thus, there is historical precedent in South Africa for using funerals to express political preferences. Booing may be a present-day manifestation of this history.

Secondly, there is a strong tendency to depoliticise Mandela. As Tokyo Sexwale so elegantly put it: If the Pope resigns and then passes away, would it be acceptable to contextualise his legacy to the exclusion of Catholicism? The ANC has been unwavering in that Mandela is a political agent of the ANC. Hence if Mandela is of the ANC, why should a memorial in his honour be exempt from its politics? If ANC functionaries compère the event, why then is it not a political event?

Mandela was both, foremost a democrat and a foremost democrat. He believed in people expressing their political preferences. We have been told to live the legacy of Mandela. So why then should there be a limit on when people live the legacy of this democrat? Mandela lived by politics. He almost died by them and will be remembered by them, and hence we should not seek to sanitise his memorial for the sake of those who solely see Mandela as a reconciler and saint-in-chief. Booing at the memorial was a political act. Our international guests should also be conscientised of this.

Adam Habib in his book Suspended Revolution speaks to the notion of substantive uncertainty in institutional politics. This is a situation where the tenure of elected leaders is not divorced from whether or not they are doing right by their constituencies. That is, they are uncertain enough about their actions and that that acts as a self-correcting mechanism for them. In the political sense then the booing (more so in front of international guests) is providing exactly such uncertainty for our elected officials.

Thirdly, when Cyril Ramaphosa and Mandela ensured that free speech was a constitutional right this was not merely incidental but by design. Free speech is revolutionary. It enables people to express their governance preferences and to ensure that those preferences are socialised into broader society. The aim of this socialisation is that those preferences become reflected in the elected leadership of this country.

The proportional electoral system in this country makes it difficult outside of election cycles, to hold elected officials to account. This is precisely because the diffuse nature of the power of the masses makes it difficult for masses to compete with the immediate power of party handlers. It is difficult for these socialised views to be brought to bear in an effective way. The few and far in between mass rallies offer people the power to bring their power to bear. The booing was amplification of the individual lone voice too weak to effectively assert its views by itself.

Fourthly, we can look at the booing from a normative sense of what is it that we wish our society to look like. One may argue that regardless of reasons above, booing is unacceptable as a form of expression. The challenge with this is how one manufactures such a normative standard in a pluralist society such as ours. The Constitutional Court often tries to play this manufacturing role (eg saying it is acceptable and not an insult to label someone a member of marginalised group), so too Parliament (eg when MPs made the body of the DA’s Lindiwe Mazibuko a site for struggle) and likewise the Human Rights Commission (eg censuring speech which had said that a woman claiming to have been raped had had a “nice time”). Other than that such manufacturing attempts are often elitist and/or appeal to European Enlightenment notions of categorical imperatives. It is difficult to say what is morally acceptable when the very people in a position to do so are themselves compromised.

I think it is weak reasoning to argue against the booing on the above historical, political and constitutional grounds. For me the most appealing line of reason is whether or not we want to create a society where people can express opinion at and of their elected representatives whatever the occasion? Be that occasion a funeral or otherwise? I think given the diffuse power of masses, we should err on the side of saying everything goes.

Melo was a Fulbright scholar at Caltech where he read his master of science in electronic engineering. Twitter: @melomagolego

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

  • KwaZulu-Natal Lamb Curry
  • Where’s my invite?
  • Obituary: Prof Bame Nsamenang, committed humanist and leader in African psychology
  • Language: An emotive issue
    • suntosh

      Excellent analysis Melo.

      Your reminder of the funeral as a political instrument is both timely and highly relevent.
      Taxpayers and citizens are feeling rather helpless that our money is being used for suspicious purposes. The booing – although perhaps in bad taste, one could argue – is a form of protest, indeed.

    • Jimmy

      Thank You for Your Perspective on this event and the concomitant societal & political issues Melo.

      I truly Appreciate the fact that Your approach is firmly rooted in Logic & Rational Reasoning – not to say that this is ‘The Ultimate and Infallible Truth’ – only that it is surely the most accessible and comprehensible of Concepts available to All People, The Collective Consciousness.

      Thanks Again, Melo :)

    • Mr. Direct


      I am not really sure about how to feel about the booing.

      Let me state clearly that I would boo Mr. Zuma if given a chance. I understand why people want to do this, and I think he deserves them.

      The question is whether the memorial was the right place for this. I was not aware of the funeral as a political instrument, and I have no way to gauge it’s weight or validity in South African culture.

      My only cause for concern is how this made the family of Mr. Mandela feel. I am not sure that they would have appreciated negative sentiment at an event created to celebrate the life of a special man.

      I am sure that Mr. Zuma will have more speaking engagements where booing will be very appropriate. I am just not sure whether people should have considered the event more important than their grievances.

      But this is a hypothetical discussion, because the boos cannot be retracted, they are out there for the world to hear. Perhaps this shows just how angry people are, and perhaps this is justification in itself.

      Who knows, if I were there, I may have just booed along…..

    • Policat

      The question is, will the booing have the desired effect? I doubt it.
      Is it not that the moral compass is lost and the integrity of the ANC parliamentarians through their track record proven that incidents of this nature will just float away on the breeze with time as have done all the other indiscretions?
      A solution would be to change the current legislation make provision for greater public influence in parliament and not the present system that endears elitist groups of politicians who conduct their themselves without fear of retribution or dismissal should they transgress their portfolio ethics. The inner circle protectionism does not serve this country any benefits.

    • seroke

      Melo, spot on with your analysis.

      Infact, it somewhat echoes the sentiment of Jay Naidoo, that the people wanted to celebrated and sing the struggle songs that have carried us as a nation through the years of oppression until the ultimate dawn of democracy. Instead the masses were being told so exercise restraint as this is a global event.

      You are right the global community needs to be sensitized to the issues at home whether it is through booing or mass protest.

      We are a nation born out of protest.

    • http://Yahoo Mr Xray

      To say booing Jacob Zuma was appropriate at an occasion where the world was both mourning and celebrating the life of a global icon is both cynical and lack of respect to the departed. It was a selfish act motivated by grievances against Mr Zuma at the expense of the hero being remembered. If people cant choose the right moments, they will be always be chaotic when raising issues and will not be able to have anything done at right places and places. I love South Africans for their bravery and openness but they are also at a huge risk of being used to settle political scores and cheap ones for that matter. Looking from outside you could easily see the propensity of some sections of south african public to latch onto and criticize anything done by Mr Zuma even on sombre occasions like the memorial, which by its very nature was not south african only. Where is the tolerance which the hero espoused?This was an occasion to tolerate the head of state even if you had issues against him. I am not saying turn a blind eye to ills committed by the president but take on him using the right platforms and right places. The great man lying in state today deserves the dignity and decent farewell the world wanted to give him. This is the reason why man and woman, great and small travelled distances and braved the rains to be at the FNB.
      Utata Mandela, we salute you and may the Hosts of Heaven welcome you in the Great Place beyond. May your legacy be lasting in your beautiful country.

    • Paul C

      Whilst the booooing was for Zuma it is the anc that we want substituted!

    • Brianb

      You are going to great lengths to rationalise and legitimise unconscionable behavior with a flowery diatribe of justification.

      there is a time and a place for everything.

      It was not a political rally or protest march. It was no a concert or a sports event. it was a memorial service to honor the passing a man who actually changed the country and the world.

      All that was due was respect.

    • Momma Cyndi

      ‘Struggle’ parties used funerals because they were the only place they could gather and the only place that the cops left them alone. It has been 20 years – can we not go back to honouring the dead instead of glorifying politics?

      I do understand the sentiment but a memorial is about the deceased, not the mourners. I also understand that this is now ANC ‘culture’ as we have had Mbeki and various other people boo’d off stage in similar events. That doesn’t make it right.

      Years from now, will we remember our grief at the loss of Madiba and how we rallied around to give his family comfort; or will we simply remember bad manners, booing, fongkong sign language, house burglaries and other nonsense?

    • Melo Magolego


      “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,” – Nelson Mandela

      Your remark is normative and value laden. Respect according to whom? Do you have a problem with the expression of political views at a funeral or do you have a problem with certain types of political expression?

    • jacques

      Mr Zuma should be made aware of the misgivings of voters… at any cost, at any place and at any time… Everyone was there to pay respects to Madiba (perhaps with the exception of the sign language “boffin”) and by now Zuma should know that boo’ing will follow him everywhere where taxpayers gather.

    • John S

      Hopefully it made the integrity of our leader rise enough to create a dignity to resign!!!

    • Gideon

      Someone should tell Cmde Blade Nzimande that this not Not North Korea, but apparently they have a vacancy!

    • blogroid

      Cool piece: well said. Perhaps you could have added that ruling classes always work out ways to deflect criticism when it is delivered according to “the rules”. Hence strike while the ear is hot. You are right too about Mandela being a Party Man: first and last.

      It is possible he was willing himself to die a critical few weeks before next year’s equally critical election, so that the Party of Liberation could garner maximum exposure and cred’ to help them push past the elusive 70% majority they desperately need to advance to real purpose of Liberation: to take it all… back….

      And then: a firestorm was brewing over Thuli that began to rock the very foundations of our new untested democracy; and he [sensibly] chose that moment to go… move the limelight: give time to let the wound be repaired. He always understood his job perfectly.

      And our President’s footpersons forgot to change the speech that was presumably prepared for the original planned eventuality: it had that standard
      ‘whip-up-the-faithful’ feel: … which, had it worked would have been brilliant. The crowd recognised the strategy and being loyalists, reminded the President that while serious political democracy may be a thin mirage in the greater society: within the Party: Recall rulz.

      It was nonetheless a single moment [plus the deaf translator guy who was maybe working with the correct speech] in an otherwise wonderful send off for a remarkably lovable man.

    • Brianb

      Melo ,

      Normatively, and in terms of universal values of decency, there was no need to boo the leader of the country at the memorial service.

      It was not smart.

      It was disrespectful and ill disciplined and out of place.

      There will be many other opportunities to voice full on strong disapproval.

      If you disagree sound it out with your elders.