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

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