The booing of South African President Jacob Zuma at the Mandela memorial gathering — this before a resplendent cast of visiting global dignitaries, around 60,000 audience members and millions of international television viewers — resonated through first the stadium that hosted the 2010 soccer world cup and then the country beyond. The resonance consists in another bout of national self-interrogation (what does this say about us?) and political punditry (what does this say about the ANC’s prospects in next year’s general elections?). So what can be sensibly said at this point?

First, South Africans showed that they have enough democracy to get away with humiliating their President in front of the world. Zuma, who has built himself an entire village at state expense in his native Nkandla, does not take his status lightly. It is not impossible that ruling circles will buzz again with talk of the need for an insult law to protect the President. But what the crowd did broke no laws and is quite typical of the style in which ANC factional battles have been waged since 2005. I don’t know if Zuma found himself hankering for the repressive powers enjoyed by some of the international leaders who addressed the stadium — those of Cuba and China come to mind — but I’m pretty sure those leaders were shocked by the public exhibition of disrespect (not to mention the crowd’s more general restlessness in the face of droning speeches). Well, too bad: this is the way we do democracy here.

Second, the event acquired a particular interest value given the build-up to general elections in early 2014. The ANC has resoundingly won four national elections since 1994 and will handily win next year’s. However the ruling party takes electoral threats seriously, and right now is in danger of having votes nibbled out of it by two new black-led parties, one to its right and another to its left. It has suffered terrible publicity recently over a series of scandals, more than one centred on the wealth-grabbling of the Zuma clan. Until now the ANC has been able to defuse popular dissent by making leadership changes at the top, disciplining wayward elements, dispensing patronage, co-opting dissidents and appealing to racial solidarity. The populace has funnelled its discontent into protests directed against municipalities, mobilisations behind out-factions and rising electoral abstention. The perennial question is whether a tipping point is approaching where disgruntled voters will be willing to place their crosses next to the ANC’s ballot rivals.

South Africans protect themselves from the rain at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. © Chuck Kennedy |
South Africans protect themselves from the rain at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. © Chuck Kennedy |

The significance of the stadium unrest for that question is fogged up by an uncertainty over exactly who was heckling and why. Clearly the stadium unrest spoke to widespread discontent with Zuma in the province of Gauteng, where the memorial event was located. But Gauteng has not been one of Zuma’s factional strongholds in any case. Many Gautengers are still in a fever of discontent over the introduction of expensive new tolls on the main highway between Johannesburg and Tshwane. Zuma would have addressed a much more deferential audience in rural KwaZulu-Natal (his home province) or indeed in the rural areas of several other provinces.

And then there’s the small problem that the opposition parties old and new have yet to demonstrate a mass black base. Clearly many discontented youngsters are attracted to the red-beret rebels of the Economic Freedom Fighters, but how many of them will bother to register, let alone vote? Agang’s constituency remains an elite one, the Congress of the People has almost certainly expired and the Democratic Alliance is still essentially a party of the three racial minorities.

A last matter: the jeering of Zuma, the subjection of him to a soccer gesture associated with player substitution, the desertion of the stadium after Obama’s speech and before the South African president’s: all this was perfectly legal and also perfectly peaceful but was it right? Did it dishonour Mandela and his family? Was it the face that most South Africans outside the stadium wanted the world to see? Was it a celebration of democracy or a portent of rising political intolerance? Are South Africans ungovernable — as suggested by lawlessness on the roads and a propensity to do vast amounts of daily violence to each other — or just enthusiastic? To these questions there really are, for now, no answers; but about them almost everyone in the country has a lively opinion. As long as South Africans can go on expressing them, the provisional verdict for soccer city yesterday must be that democracy came away one-nil up.