South Africans Celebrate First Black President, but Boo the Current One

Thousands, including dozens of global dignitaries, piled into Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. But when current President Jacob Zuma took the stage, he was roundly jeered

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

South African President Jacob Zuma waves as he arrives at the FNB Stadium, also known as Soccer City, ahead of the national memorial service for late former South African leader Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Dec. 10, 2013

The days since Nelson Mandela’s death have been marked in South Africa with an undefined doubt, a rumor of ambivalence, a whisper of disenchantment. Away from the crowds of hundreds lighting candles outside his home, away from the thousands of mourners who laid flowers in front of his statues, events to commemorate the passing of South Africa’s first black President have been poorly attended and the myriad broadcasts of remembrances of him often seemed to be going unheard.

On Tuesday, as more than 100 world leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe gathered for a memorial at a soccer stadium on the edge of Soweto, South Africa’s unease moved closer into focus. A crowd of tens of thousands braved torrential rain to cheer on Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Bono. Obama, American’s first black President, received the loudest cheer and a standing ovation for a rousing speech in which he said: “While I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he made me want to be a better man.”

(MORE: Obama Honors Nelson Mandela: ‘His Triumph Was Your Triumph’)

Whenever the cameras alighted on South Africa’s own President, Jacob Zuma, however, the crowd loudly booed him. Entreaties from Zuma’s subordinates in the African National Congress to be quiet and more polite failed to silence them. By the time Zuma stood to give a wooden keynote address, read from a sheath of papers, the stadium was all but empty. “Madiba was one of a kind,” Zuma said. And that, apparently, was precisely the problem.

South Africa’s memorial day began promisingly enough, with tens of thousands traveling in the early hours to the giant FNB Stadium, to the southwest of Johannesburg. But even as the event was scheduled to begin, it was clear whole tiers of seats were not going to be filled. Outside South Africa’s business capital, the mood was even more subdued. In Cape Town, just a few hundred people showed up to watch a giant outdoor screen relaying a broadcast of the event.

In the ANC’s heartland, the Eastern Cape, where Mandela will be buried at his home village of Qunu on Sunday, there was little to show the day was different from any other — and little to show either that much had changed in the nearly 20 years since the end of apartheid in 1994. In scores of small towns here — where unemployment can reach 80%, HIV/AIDS infection 33% and violent crime is three times what is already one of the worst national rates in the world — hundreds of jobless blacks were still to be found waiting by the side of the road in the hope that a white farmer passing in a pickup would stop and hire them for a day’s work. In Qunu itself, perhaps 100 people gathered in front of a giant screen at a small museum erected in honor of Mandela — but somehow the screen never came to life. In the nearby city of Mthatha, patrons in the one restaurant showing the memorial — Mike’s Kitchen — ignored the three screens on the wall, which were eventually muted.

In that context, pledges by several speakers at the memorial to follow Mandela’s example began to feel like an admonishment of Zuma. Any leader following Mandela faces an unenviable task in the shadow of one of the most towering political figures of the past century. But Zuma has been particularly disappointing. Even before he took power, he was embroiled in sex-and-corruption scandals. His administration has been plagued by a near constant stream of stories of ministerial and official impropriety. Mandela’s death at 95 was one of the few stories able to push from the front pages the latest controversy to tarnish Zuma — a public prosecutor’s report that he spent $20 million in state funds massively expanding his private home outside Durban, including installing a large swimming pool. Government officials have said the money was spent on security upgrades.

(MORE: Things Fall Apart: Mandela’s Sad Legacy of Successors)

Obama was one of several speakers who said Mandela’s legacy demanded self-reflection. “Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of [Mandela’s] struggle,” he said. “But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done. We must ask: How well have we applied his lessons in my own life?”

“Around the world,” said Obama, but in words that seemed to apply as closely as anywhere to South Africa, “we still see children suffering from hunger and disease, run-down schools, and few prospects for the future … Men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

With the African National Congress’s seemingly unshakeable lock on votes, Zuma seems likely to be re-elected next year at his second general election. But on Tuesday, South Africans at least made their voices heard.