Monday 23 April 2018

Clouds gather over Zuma in wake of Mandela death

'Madiba' was an extraordinary man -- but his successor has betrayed his remarkable legacy, writes Taariq Halim

South African President Jacob Zuma wipes his eyes while attending a farewell ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela by the African National Congress
South African President Jacob Zuma wipes his eyes while attending a farewell ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela by the African National Congress
STAR-STRUCK: Taariq Halim with Nelson Mandela in 1999. ‘I just kept shaking and shaking and shaking his hand’

Taariq Halim

I HAD the good fortune of meeting Nelson Mandela one day in 1999. The late international icon was then in the final months of his term as the first democratically-elected president of South Africa.

I was an intern reporter at a daily newspaper in Cape Town, tasked with following the great man as he visited schools around the city.

When I spotted the presidential convoy, Madiba was about to leave a pre-primary school -- he loved children.

The photographer and I were running through the parking lot when we suddenly came face to face with the statesman and his entourage, who were walking back to their cars. Star-struck, all I managed to do was extend my hand and say: "How are you, Mr President?"

"I am fine," said Mandela. "You are late."

I just kept shaking and shaking and shaking his hand, trying to stall long enough to come up with something meaningful to say.

For the most powerful man in the country at the time, Tata (father) had the gentlest of handshakes -- almost a caress. Career guidance counsellors and business etiquette courses coach you to have a firm grip and make eye contact when shaking hands.

This, they claim, signifies confidence and creates a good first impression. But, on the strength of this handshake, here was someone who had nothing to prove. No pretensions, no need to exert authority over anyone.

This wasn't a president confronting a useless journalist. This was a kind old man saying hello to a young man. A human being greeting another human being. Fortunately, while I was rooted to the spot, the quick-thinking photographer was snapping away.

"Treasure that picture," he advised as he walked away.

I did.

This week, more than ever before, I think back to those magical few moments nearly 15 years ago. And what stands out most in my mind is how easy it was to approach the former president.

I had walked straight up to a global icon and taken his hand. I didn't have to apply for accreditation or bypass any Men in Black-style bodyguards. There were no blue light brigade bullies (government security escorts) to make sure I kept my distance.

Here was a leader who no one thought of harming.

An honest man, a man of principle and humility, a man of peace, a selfless man who sacrificed everything for his people. When you've won the love and respect of a nation, really earned it the way Madiba did -- then there's no need for bodyguards, VIP police protection and blue lights.

You don't need R250 million (€18m) in "security upgrades" to your home -- as is the case with current president Jacob Zuma, who is the subject of an investigation by the public prosecutor for alleged misuse of taxpayers' money.

And you don't get booed by your own people on the world stage -- the way Zuma was during the Nelson Mandela Memorial in Soweto, Johannesburg, last week.

The shameful scenes that played out last Tuesday at the FNB Stadium -- the venue where the 2010 World Cup football final was staged -- soured somewhat what was a momentous occasion to mark the loss one of the world's greatest leaders.

It also brought before the eyes of the world the growing dissatisfaction with Zuma and his African National Congress government.

Much has been said in the past two years about Zuma's luxury KwaZulu-Natal homestead, his lavish lifestyle and multitude of wives by both the media and his political opponents.

But never before has the ruling party's leader been targeted so openly in a public show of disapproval as he was when his eulogy to Madiba was drowned out by jeers in the stadium.

It was not a reaction that President Zuma would have been accustomed to -- being a noted showman capable of pleasing a crowd of any size with his 'struggle' songs and traditional Zulu dances. But in the wake of Madiba's death, the remembrance of the ideals that guided South Africa from the brink of civil war to independence seems to have blunted Zuma's charms.

Now, as we South Africans take the time to cherish the example set by Mandela and his leadership, we realise how much Zuma has betrayed his legacy.

Both Mandela and Zuma's political roots were planted deep in the ANC and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those freedom fighter credentials helped both to rise to the top of the ruling party's ranks. But that's where the comparison should end.

This week, when Zuma -- whose administration has been dogged by corruption and a lack of service delivery to the poor -- hailed the life and achievements of Madiba, he effectively exposed his own failings.

Granted, any president who comes after Mandela will have impossibly big shoes to fill -- and it would be unfair to burden anyone with that weight of expectation.

But Zuma is no Mandela. And the corrupt ANC of today is not the principled ANC of Mandela's day.

Disillusionment with the ruling party grew under Madiba's successor Thabo Mbeki, with dodgy government deals and the abuse of black economic empowerment policies becoming rife. Now under Zuma, however, public discontent and mistrust is higher than ever.

The ANC has not only alienated some of its loyal supporters, but also witnessed defections of key members as a result of divisions within the organisation. The past year alone has seen at least two breakaway ANC parties emerge to challenge Zuma's grip on power.

It is probable that these very groups were the ones who embarrassed the president on stage this week.

But -- given the current widespread dissatisfaction -- those boos could have come from any quarter. Some political commentators are calling the revolt against Zuma a "turning point" in South African politics.

Since the passing of Mandela, his life and his lessons have been celebrated over and over in newspapers, on radio, TV, in public spaces and in the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Somehow, in this post-Mandela era, all around us, there is a renewed hope that the spirit of Madiba will inspire a better future with better leadership.

And more and more, we are questioning whether there is a place for Zuma in that future.

Taariq Halim edits the 'Daily Voice' newspaper in Cape Town.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News