JOHANNESBURG — The death of South African icon and former president Nelson Mandela has pushed the nation into a mass political debate ahead of next year's elections. Voters are increasingly upset with the party that Mandela brought to power, the African National Congress.
Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. His death has now sparked a serious political debate over the nation’s future and that of the ruling African National Congress party.
An indication of public sentiment came on December 10 when current president, and ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, was roundly booed by a crowd of some 60,000 people who had gathered at Soweto’s FNB Stadium to mourn Mandela.
While the action was widely condemned as inappropriate at such a solemn occasion, it underscores a growing frustration here in South Africa by the general population as well as some longtime ANC supporters.
Zuma under fire
One of Mandela’s closest friends, lawyer George Bizos, summed up the people’s frustrations at a separate memorial.
“Who do our leaders think they are kidding by telling us they are following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela,” he said.
Earlier this month, South Africa's top anti-corruption official, Thuli Madonsela, issued her provisional report finding that Zuma spent some $20 million in government funds for upgrades to his personal home in rural KwaZulu-Natal province.
She said the expenditure far exceeded legitimate security needs and she recommended he repay the public and that parliament call him to account for ethics violations.
While Zuma had previously denied he used government funds, some of the public clearly sees this as more corruption in the upper echelons of the ANC.
A new poll conducted by the Sunday Times newspaper - and published on the day of Mandela’s burial -- found 51 percent of registered ANC voters say they want Zuma to resign.
Blaming the ANC
The ANC has dominated national politics since the end of apartheid in 1994. South Africa may be free, but it is far from equal today, with black South Africans still on the bottom of the economic heap. Unemployment stands at a hefty 26 percent.
Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says South Africans are mad about one main issue: the economy.
“I think the president’s been implicated around spending 206 million rand on his private residence. I think this is creating a real anger at the base of society. I mean, this coupled with the fact that we’ve had economic inequalities increase every single year for the last 19 years has created, if you like, an explosive moment,” said Habib.
Habib noted that the ANC appears to retain popularity in rural areas, where the party has a huge presence and is widely seen as responsible for all the improvements in South African society over the past two decades.
However, the mood in Johannesburg was further exposed on the eve of Mandela’s Sunday funeral, when a local news station aired a panel discussion on the future of South Africa.
“The ANC, because of its large electoral majority, feels invincible.” said political analyst Eusebius McKaiser, drawing cheers from the audience. “You don’t show the electorate this kind of disrespect,” he said.
In the audience, there were boos, tears and jeers as panelists sparred over issues of inequality, racism and economics.
The last word came from an unlikely source: a small, frail old white woman in a pink jacket, who sat in the front row. Her comment was brief.
“South Africa,” she said, ”is a much nicer place than it was in 1994.”
We’ll find out if voters agree, next year.