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South Africans Cheer Mandela, Jeer President Jacob Zuma

Dec 11, 2013
Originally published on December 11, 2013 7:41 pm

South African President Jacob Zuma likes to see himself as following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela: They made their names in the anti-apartheid movement, they were imprisoned together on Robben Island and they both were elected president.

But that's where the comparison ends.

Zuma, who has been embroiled in multiple corruption and sex scandals, thought he might catch a break and bask in Mandela's reflected glory as the world pays tribute to the iconic figure following his death last week.

But from the moment that Zuma stepped into the stadium, he was booed repeatedly on Tuesday at a memorial service for Mandela. The event attracted tens of thousands to the country's largest soccer stadium in Soweto, the huge black township just outside Johannesburg.

'Embarrassing Spectacle'

This was no small achievement on Zuma's part. Most in the crowd were supporters or members of the African National Congress, the party of Zuma and Mandela. Despite sheets of rain, the audience was in a joyous, spirited, celebratory mood.

A long list of world leaders received rousing greetings, President Obama most of all. Zimbabwe's Rogert Mugabe is not welcome in many countries, but he was cheered. When the announcer noted the presence of F.W. de Klerk, the country's last apartheid-era leader and the man who released Mandela from prison, the crowd respectfully applauded.

Yet Zuma was jeered by parts of the crowd nearly every time his name was mentioned or his picture appeared on the stadium's jumbo screens. It got so bad at one point that organizers removed his likeness from the screen, replaced it with one of Mandela, and then played music in hopes of drowning out the catcalls.

Zuma's role in a memorial that lasted for several hours was limited to a short, bland speech near the end. Yet he managed to do something no one else has been able to do for the last several days — draw attention away from Mandela.

Zuma instantly became the main topic on television newscasts and talk radio programs. And the newspapers were harsh. The Star of Johannesburg ran a large, screaming headline on Wednesday morning: "Zuma's Humiliation."

"What was supposed to be President Jacob Zuma's moment of glory in the presence of world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama, turned into a humiliating and embarrassing spectacle," the paper wrote.

Long List Of Controversies, Scandal

It's small consolation for Zuma, but the persistent booing was an illustration of the country's vibrant democracy, for which Mandela fought so hard.

The list of Zuma controversies is long. The most pressing one involves reports that the government paid $20 million to upgrade his private residence in a rural area outside the southeastern port city of Durban. Zuma's office has defended the work as necessary for improved security, but a government watchdog is trying to determine how a swimming pool, an outdoor amphitheater and other amenities might make the president safer. Opposition politicians were calling for his impeachment in the days before Mandela's death.

This episode has struck a nerve among South Africans who were already upset with Zuma over the state of a struggling economy that is not creating enough jobs for millions of impoverished blacks.

Zuma became president in 2009 after surviving a number of high-profile scandals.

Back in 2005, then-president Thabo Mbeki ousted Zuma as deputy president over allegations of a corrupt arms deal. An investigation lasted years, but no charges were filed.

Shortly after he lost his government position in 2005, Zuma was charged with rape, a case that riveted the country for months. He claimed that the sex with the woman – who was not one of his multiple wives — was consensual and he was acquitted.

Zuma has been married six times, a figure that includes four current wives, two of whom he wed after becoming president. He has about 20 children, including 14 with his wives and several more with other women.

Polygamy is legal in South Africa, though rarely practiced these days, and Zuma has come under criticism for the government expense involved in supporting his wives.

An Uncertain Future

South Africa is about six months away from an election, and the ANC is again expected to win easily. However, political analysts say Zuma is no longer a lock to be the ANC's choice for president.

Mbeki, Zuma's predecessor, was essentially forced from the presidency in 2008 by the ANC, and a caretaker was installed for several months before Zuma came to power the following year.

"Nelson Mandela's departure becomes a stark reminder of how people are missing everything that was good (in him)," political analyst Somadoda Fikeni told The Star.

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GREG MYRE, BYLINE: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Amid the eulogies and singing and cheers at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in South Africa yesterday, there was one jarring note of discord. When the country's president, Jacob Zuma, was introduced, many in the large soccer stadium booed. That came as Zuma, head of Mandela's own African National Congress Party, had apparently hoped the Mandela nostalgia might deflect from the controversies that surround him.

NPR's Greg Myre is in Johannesburg, and he joins us on the line. Good morning.

MYRE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about that booing in the crowd for Zuma.

MYRE: Yeah, he was booed four or five times. At one point, it got so bad that they took his picture off the giant stadium screen, and they put up a still photo of Mandela. And they started playing music, they hoped this was going to drown out the booing.

Other leaders there got huge cheers. President Obama probably got the loudest round of applause. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, a rather controversial figure, he got a warm applause. Even F.W. de Klerk, the last white president, the man who released Mandela, he received a warm cheer when his name was announced. The Star, leading newspaper in Johannesburg, had a screaming headline: Zuma's Humiliation.

MONTAGNE: Well, this all comes as there have been in recent days, calls for Zuma's impeachment. So what is behind the booing and the calls for impeachment?

MYRE: Zuma has been a controversial figure for a long time. The country is having some problems now; the economy is not doing well, unemployment is high. But the issue that is his biggest problem at the moment, is an inquiry into spending. Twenty million dollars was spent to upgrade his private home in a rural area outside Durban.

MONTAGNE: By the government, right?

MYRE: Correct. And allegedly it was done for security reasons. But, as it's been investigated, its included things like: a swimming pool, and outdoor amphitheater. And in addition, given all the other controversies, this seems to have really sort of tipped public opinion.

MONTAGNE: There is an election coming up this spring. South Africa does have a parliamentary system, so the president is not a popular vote. But even though the ANC will decide who its next president, is Zuma no longer a shoo-in for a second term?

MYRE: He's certainly hit the point where there are some questions being raised about this. And if his party, the African National Congress, chooses him to be their leader then it's expected to easily win the election. But if they decided that they don't want him, this could jeopardize his position. And there's a bit of a precedent here. The previous president, Thabo Mbeki, got into all sorts of confrontations in his own party. And in 2008, he was actually pushed out and resigned. So Zuma is no longer a lock.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, Greg, with the passing of Mandela - who held out so much promise to South Africans - what is the state of the country's democracy?

MYRE: I think it's important to remember that when Mandela was released, there were really no genuine democracies in Africa. South Africa really led the way. But now we've seen the African National Congress rule for 20 years. It's feeling a bit like a de facto one-party state. Nobody is denying that there is the democratic process here, but the ANC is being seen as a little complacent, a little corrupt. And Mandela set a very, very high bar.

And if you compare yourself to Nelson Mandela, you're quite likely to come out on the short end of that scale. If you're Jacob Zuma, you may feel that the only thing that you can feel is a profound sense of inferiority.

MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much .

MYRE: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Greg Myre, speaking to us from Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela is now lying in state in the capital, Pretoria.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.