SOWETO, South Africa — When President Obama approached the podium to deliver a rousing speech to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s life, the masses erupted in cheers. But when South African President Jacob Zuma stood up, some in the crowd booed.
The scene, at Tuesday’s memorial service for Mandela, doesn’t appear to bode well for Zuma and the ruling African Nation Congress party. Next year, they will face what could be the country’s most competitive election yet. Several new political parties have emerged, led by former ANC stalwarts and anti-apartheid activists, to challenge the party’s grip on South African politics.
For many South Africans, the death of Mandela on Thursday night shined a spotlight on the flaws of their leadership. Zuma is facing a corruption investigation over allegations that he used $20 million in state funds for the renovation of his residence in KwaZulu-Natal province, including the building of a swimming pool. There is growing criticism that the ANC is ineffective, corrupt and out of touch with the hardships faced by South Africa’s poor.
“The government is not addressing corruption sufficiently,” said Patrick Hanratty, a tourism operator. “I think it is one of the things in the upcoming election that will lose them votes.”
Nearly every week, protesters take to the streets to demand jobs, houses and basic services, which many South Africans still lack. Despite the end of white rule, the nation remains one of the world’s most unequal societies, with whites dominating the economy. ANC officials deny the allegations against them and note that access to electricity, clean water and housing for impoverished blacks has increased in recent years.
Still, it was jarring to hear Zuma booed by portions of the crowd. When ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa gave his welcome address, they cheered. They also cheered for former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Frederik W. de Klerk, who was the last leader of the apartheid regime and who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.
On Twitter, some came to Zuma’s defense.
“Even if you don’t like your president, you can’t boo him during such a time as this. Madiba wouldn’t want this,” wrote Khaya Dlanga, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
“South Africans are just embarrassing themselves by booing Jacob Zuma,” Jutika Singh wrote.
But when Zuma declared that Mandela “was one of a kind,” the crowd cheered.