Boo Who?

Boo Who?

Jacob Zuma’s humiliation at the Mandela Memorial at the FNB Stadium may have been distasteful, but it was an essential act of democracy, argues Kameel Premhid.

Boo Who?

jacob-zuma FEATURE

South Africa and the world watched aghast as Jacob Zuma was resoundly booed by the crowd at the Nelson Mandela Memorial service at the FNB Stadium on Tuesday. What was so shocking was the crowd’s audacity to boo a sitting President in front of a world audience at an event of such magnitude.

Many suggest that this was an indication of worse things to come for the ANC. So the theory goes, the people expressed their voluble and palpable anger by humiliating Jacob Zuma for being the antithesis of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Whereas the former President’s legacy is one of selflessness and sacrifice, of humility and respect for the rule of law, this one is quite the opposite. The argument goes further to say that unless the ANC ditches Zuma, they are going to be in big trouble.

While this is plausible, I would not set too much stock by it. George Osborne was booed at the Olympic Games in London in 2012 but the Tories (Osborne’s party) still enjoy a healthy lead in the polls for economic competence (political commentators explained the booing as condemnation of Osborne’s far-reaching austerity programme). I do not fancy calling elections based on momentary events.

However, what does draw my attention is the intriguing way in which people have reacted to the booing itself. Many people who are vehement critics of Zuma displayed the strangest double-takes in leaping to his defence. One of my friends who is a particularly sharp Zuma critic went so far so as to describe booing the President as ‘treasonous.’ Considering that he is an altogether rational person, I am going to suggest that this uncharacteristic defence of Zuma was as a result of the raw emotions that the solemnity of the day evoked.

When I engaged with him on this (and his opinions were widely circulated and liked), he did agree that he may have been overzealous in his characterisation of ridiculing the President being an act of treason. But there are many, including him, that somehow think booing Zuma was an unspeakable act that deserves to be condemned. Indeed, the SACP and the ANC have said as much.

It is true that choosing to boo Jacob Zuma at that particular time was distasteful. Much as I don’t mind seeing the President being made to squirm, I would have rather those who booed ridicule the President at a rally rather than a memorial service. But, now that it has happened, I will defend it, my own feelings of distaste aside.

First, the act of booing at such an event sends a signal to those in power. The people — or those people in attendance — have had enough. Protests, Marikana, petitions and the like seem to fall on deaf ears. The thunderous crowd’s attempt to make the President listen, not merely hear, was a calculated move that shows people are thinking critically. This is good: our democracy is getting healthier.

Secondly, the President’s Office itself is not something worthy of protection or dignity. It is an inanimate object that enjoys dignity or protection in its own right. Any attempt to protect the office — and thus the incumbent — is artificial and false. The dignity the office is accorded depends on the incumbent. While one may have respect for the fact that President Zuma holds the Office of President — and his respect his authority as a result of that — no one is forced, nor can they be forced, to respect President Zuma himself.

Third, it seems downright hypocritical that people would leap to Zuma’s defence when, in fact, they are staunch critics of the President. Not that I don’t mind  bit of bi-partisanship, but do so in such terms as I have borne witness to robs these sudden defenders of any credibility whatsoever. Especially when they are at the front of the maddening crowd and have taken up the cudgels the next day.

While the booing should not be thought of as a watershed moment — more as a passing embarrassing interlude in the Zuma Presidency — there is a lesson here. South Africans can get angry and they can display their anger. One only hopes that if those booing President Zuma are representative of a wider trend and feeling in the country, that people do not only boo President Zuma but that they vote him out too. As symbolic as booing Zuma may be, he remains President of the Republic. If the people have as much power to embarrass him, as the pundits have said, then the people should use their real power and dislodge him from the place they originally put him. Anything less is just some discomforting noise.