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Booing deepens democracy

Booing is now part of our democracy, whether you like it or not. It is so mainstream; it cannot be taboo. It happened at the ANC’s Polokwane conference and it happened at Mangaung. It will happen at the next conference. Should it have happened at former president Nelson Mandela’s memorial is the question?

Booing shows a very post-modern, fluid democracy in action: full of fights, splits, disruptions or contestations. And just when you think you can pin something down, it gets unsettled and ruptures. Especially populist power. This is what happened to the popularity of President Jacob Zuma. He thought he had it (power) in the bag after his comrades Zwelinzima Vavi and Julius Malema said there would be blood on the streets, if he didn’t get it. He got in, and Thabo Mbeki was unceremoniously booed out. Now Vavi and Malema are out. But how “in” is Zuma now, given the boos? That’s how fluid politics are in South Africa. Zuma’s power now hangs in the balance by a precarious thread. Nothing is fixed and settled in this post-modern condition.

Initially when I heard the boos at Mandela’s memorial, I thought I was dreaming. Disturbed, I thought: “Oh no, this is not what our darling Nelson Mandela would have wanted.” He stood for Ubuntu and compassion. His whole essence was kindness. How lacking in graciousness, and how terribly unkind to boo even a president such as Zuma like that. Yikes. Eish, and stop.

Sleeping on the issue, in just one night I changed my mind. Once upon a time, in an ANC of old, such an expression of free floating and spontaneous feeling would not have happened. But that was the ANC of old. The leadership were the kings (and sometimes queens) of what was acceptable and what was not. It’s over. The culture has changed. The democratic centralism of the ANC, or the top-down culture, where decisions are made from above, and the lower echelons have to toe the line, that’s over, for good. Decisions such as spending on Nkandla are still made from the top, but South Africans on the ground are saying: we don’t like it. We do not like it, one bit.

With more reflection and hindsight, the booing and substitution signs (for changing “leadership”) were done in such a calm and disciplined way compared to other things going on at the unforgettable memorial service. The whole event was a bit discombobulated in a typical post-modern, all over the place, scattered-ness. People were singing and dancing, while speakers, such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, were talking. She was oblivious, because on that strange podium, where the elite sat nice and dry, she was cut off from the crowd who were soaked from the rain and covering themselves in supermarket plastic bags. People were captivated, for a bit, by American President Barack Obama, who admittedly is a dynamic speaker. Obama, when he wasn’t speaking was “flirting” with the Danish prime minister. Then they took selfies before Michelle sandwiched herself between her husband and the prime minster, to prevent any more “flirting”, presumably. To add to the discombobulated-ness of it all, the deaf community was very puzzled by what the fake interpreter, who said he was having a schizophrenic episode, was signing about.

Back to the booing. Mandela would not have been turning in his coffin, in my view. He would have been smiling, I hope. What a lively democracy, he would be saying. Show them your anger, and tell them not to be so arrogant and take you, their voters for granted. As tribute after tribute pours in, many people talk about how Mandela listened, genuinely interested. Indeed, if he hadn’t stood up for his rights (and the rest of ours too), as the Bob Marley song went, where would we be today? He would have listened to people’s dissatisfaction with their lives, with service delivery, with poverty, with unemployment, in our country, which boasts the highest inequality gap in the world. It was after all Mandela who sacrificed part of his salary to make a difference, to education. Since then, we have had many gates: Nkandlagate, Gutpagate, the list is endless. These gates should have resulted in resignations. They have not. Now we have the right to protest.

Thank you booers. Let’s keep the gate open to expressing anger. It’s not taboo any more to boo leaders. It is now fully entrenched in our democracy. Let’s boo, until they wake up. Until they put others first, before themselves.