South Africa’s long goodbye to Nelson Mandela was seen as an opportunity for the ruling African National Congress to cement ties with the revered icon. Instead it has underscored the distance between him and its current leaders.
In a sign of growing disenchantment with their leadership, large numbers of South African mourners heckled President Jacob Zuma during Mandela’s memorial in Soweto on Tuesday.
The highly embarrassing act, by a crowd mostly sporting ANC green and yellow colours, made clear the disappointment of the party activists who drew unflattering comparisons between the ANC of Mandela’s era and that of Zuma’s.
Party supporters “are making a distinction between the persona of Nelson Mandela, the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the ANC under Nelson Mandela… and the current era of President Zuma,” said Cape Town-based analyst Daniel Silke.
Mandela’s death “has highlighted the ANC as it was when compared to the very fractious and divided ANC that is fraught with infighting and constant allegations of corruption, of which President Zuma is often part of,” said Silke.
The ANC, in power since 1994 when Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, has struggled in recent years to convince people that it is still the party of liberation.
Voters face a dilemma about whether to back a party that clearly identifies with the history of the country, but which is now tainted by a leadership of questionable integrity.
Observers have long predicted that the ANC is looking at attracting fewer votes in 2014, around 60 percent or less.
But if it drops below 60 percent, commentators warn that voters will start to drift away and the 2019 election will prove more competitive than ever.
Alongside government and the Mandela family, the ANC is officially involved in organising the funeral and is separately running party commemorative events.
Some events have taken on an electioneering tone.
The public broadcaster on Sunday abruptly switched from a live media conference by the government on Mandela’s funeral plans, to broadcast a speech by the ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Praying for the ANC
Besides praying for Mandela’s soul “we’re also praying for his organisation, the ANC,” said Ramaphosa at an inter-faith memorial prayer event.
At another weekend gathering in the opposition fiefdom of Cape Town, some ANC supporters wore yellow T-shirts calling on voters to “Do it for Mandela Vote ANC”.
A women’s league official urged mourners to emulate Mandela’s “tireless” work if the ANC is to win back the Western Cape, the only province not under the party’s control.
Exploiting the Mandela brand for political mileage was to be expected.
Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, said it was not surprising for the ANC to try “to mobilise sentiment and let the ‘Madiba magic’ assist them in their electoral competition.”
“Which politician is not going to use an opportunity to campaign effectively?” said Habib who was interviewed before the leadership was booed.
The ‘Madiba Magic,’ named after his clan name, was Nelson Mandela’s quirky mix of grandeur and simplicity, his ready quips, his ability to relate to the poor, his colourful custom-made shirts and his dancing prowess.
In any case there will be renewed sympathy for the ANC following Mandela’s death, but the booing of Zuma could make election campaigning more difficult for the party.
But voting patterns may not be “materially” altered, said Silke.
“Mandela’s death has revitalised the ANC in the memory of South Africans, and this perhaps will help to keep the ANC vote relatively secure,” said Silke.
The death of one of the party’s pioneers make “some people who had wanted to give up on the ANC to think” they will vote for the party “maybe because of Mandela,” said author William Gumede.
Brand expert Jeremy Sampson said the ANC can claim to own Mandela but this time it may find it tough to use Mandela for electioneering because “he is much bigger than the ANC”.
“Yes he was a very proud member of that party for many many years, but that party today is not the party that he was an active member of, it’s changed quite dramatically,” said Sampson.