If the boo fits …

Doron Isaacs
Doron Isaacs.
Doron Isaacs

In his 2004 Nelson Mandela lecture Desmond Tutu bravely suggested that an “uncritical, sycophantic, obsequious conformity” constituted a threat to democracy in South Africa. He said that “too many are foolhardy and opt for silence to become voting cattle for the party.”

Then-president Mbeki dealt harshly with Tutu in response. Tuesday’s booing of President Zuma was anything but obsequious sycophancy. But Tutu was not impressed. “You must show the world that we are disciplined,” he shouted, visibly angry, into an almost empty stadium towards the end of the Mandela Memorial. “I want to hear a pin drop.”

Like many people Tutu seems to have been embarrassed by the lack of decorum, including the booing of President Zuma. Let’s not wash our dirty laundry out in public, Tutu seemed to be saying. I think Tutu was wrong. When his courageous voice speaks truth to power it is heard – too seldom listened to, but heard. But in our unequal society millions feel unheard, and so they do other things, like burn tyres near the edges of our cities, sing offensive songs, and boo.

The booing made me happy, not because I enjoy President Zuma’s personal humiliation, but because it reminds me of the healthy disdain for authority amongst many working-class South Africans. It is through that irreverence and independent-mindedness, especially when organised, that people become and stay free. This seems far preferable to what seems to sit just below the surface of the “liberal” consciousness of parts of our white and black middle classes – an authoritarianism that stirs whenever the natives seem restless. The irreverence was learnt in the struggle and its Tutu’s own legacy, and Madiba’s.

To be clear, it’s not that I like booing. I much prefer public events that don’t involve booing. But I also prefer presidents who don’t deserve to be booed. And I’m not going to condemn what seems like a mostly spontaneous outpouring of justified disapproval.

Gary Younge, who reported on the event for the Guardian, wrote that “the booing started off tentatively and dispersed. But once it started others became emboldened until, by the third time he appeared, it was reflexive and widespread.”

There were surely instigators, who were likely playing factional games, and who, as Sisonke Msimang pointed out in her excellent piece, probably don’t represent the ANC’s base in other provinces – but the stadium joined in spontaneously. “In this the crowd seemed to surprise itself,” observed Younge.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s only tweet during the Soweto ceremony was this: “In a democracy you listen to your opponents, and boo at the ballot box. SA please become a mature democracy!”

I found this offensive.

Firstly, it shows Zille – leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance opposition – electioneering during Mandela’s tribute.

Secondly it is suggests a paternalistic, priggish attitude to democracy. It makes her sound like a strict school principal rather than a person in touch with and respectful of citizens.

“I trust the Cape Town crowd today will respect Madiba’s legacy. Let’s celebrate his life with dignity,” she admonished yesterday morning.

To the credit of the City of Cape Town, that event was by all accounts a far superior tribute, with Zille in fine isiXhosa singing form.

Zille is understandably wary of booing, after her recent experience in Saldanha Bay. On 31 October she attended the launch of the Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone together with President Zuma. She ended up walking out of the event after being booed, and heckled to the point of being prevented from speaking, by ANC supporters.

“We cannot help if the president is such a popular person on the West Coast,” was the feeble excuse of Marius Fransman, ANC leader in the province. President Zuma sat and did nothing, making no attempt to ask the crowd to let the Premier speak.

Zille might now be trying to show that she is bigger than Zuma, that when he is booed she takes a principled position. But the two situations are very different.

The Saldanha Bay event was, as Zille rightly pointed out at the time, a state-funded event that seems to have been used by the ANC leadership for party-political purposes. Fransman, Deputy Minister of International Relations, was a featured speaker, despite it being an event about local industrial development. And, as Zille’s tweet suggests, there is a particular democratic duty to allow your opponent to speak, as Zuma failed to do in Saldanha Bay. But that’s not quite the same as a President being booed by the disaffected supporters of his own ranks, as happened at the FNB stadium.

Tuesday’s booing actually dispels the middle class myth about the South African electorate; that they are merely “voting cattle”. (One assumes the Arch prefers ‘boo’ to ‘moo’.)

Voters are likely to return the ANC to power with a large majority, due partly to the lack of a credible alternative, but Tuesday makes clear that ordinary people follow the news, think, analyse and draw conclusions about their leaders. That’s something to take heart from. As is the fact that many ordinary people around the world would have been emboldened and inspired by seeing us booing our President. So we should let go of our fretfulness with what the world thinks reflected in Zille’s plea for us to become a “mature democracy”.

Many ordinary people around the world would have been emboldened and inspired by seeing us booing our President.

I can’t help wondering which mature democracies she had in mind. Not Britain, where Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, was recently interrogated in Parliament for reporting on the worldwide surveillance being carried out by the US and Britain. “Do you love your country?” Rusbridger was asked by Keith Vaz, the MP who chairs the home affairs committee in the House of Commons.

And not the US, which is still holding 46 prisoners at its Guantanamo Bay prison for “indefinite detention” without trial. Those were probably not the people President Obama’s was hoping we’d think about when, in his moving and eloquent speech, he reminded us that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs”.

And compared to the racist jeering about Obama during the historic 2008 election campaign, usually at Republican rallies, the crowd’s conduct at the FNB stadium was positively angelic. On the night of Obama’s victory, opponent John McCain interrupted his own concession speech to ask his supporters to stop booing Obama. In 2009 with the rise of the Tea Party things actually got worse. Most of the world’s leaders present on Tuesday are not unfamiliar with rowdy crowds – that’s part of a democracy!

What really worries me is the ANC’s reaction. Spokesperson Jackson Mthembu is reported to have said that State Security should have been more alive to the plotters of the booing. And Zuma’s advisor Lindiwe Zulu, who told BBC journalist Andrew Harding that the booing was “humiliating” and that those responsible will be “dealt with”.

The SABC is reported to have banned footage of the booing and the South African Communist Party (part of the governing alliance) has called upon the government to “institute an investigation into the circumstances that led to this incident” – presumably not the spending of R200m at Zuma’s private home at Nkandla.

Madiba’s sad passing has been a special time for the country. But it has also been something of a deus ex machina for President Zuma on Nkandla.

I’m with the booers in hoping that once we’ve finished paying tribute to our great Madiba we return to the struggle for social justice, and to defending our democratic gains from a President and his clique who are currently plundering them.

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TOPICS:  Government

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