South Africa

Funeral Politics

Saturday’s official funeral for the world to say a final farewell to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was always going to be a political affair, saying much about our politics of the day. Julius Malema attempted to steal the show with an angry diatribe at some people within the ANC. But he may well have been upstaged by President Cyril Ramaphosa who has probably provided the best diagnosis of our problems yet delivered by a sitting politician. At the same time, many more have tried to twist the past to further their own present-day agenda.

This is the kind of thing we have come to expect in our politics. For a politician, dying is often a political act. Someone who was as big, as important, as monumentally significant as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was never going to pass without there being a huge political impact. At the same time, her death, and the ceremonies which followed it, were always going to be used by present-day politicians for their own selfish ends. In our history, since Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, there has only ever been one event bigger than the funeral of Winnie, and that was the funeral of Madiba himself. In other words, this was, for almost everyone involved, a unique opportunity to make a point while reaching a previously impossible audience.

It would be pleasant to think that while this sort of thing was bound to happen, that perhaps there would have been intense planning behind the scenes to prevent any surprises. But it was not to be. City Press reported on Sunday how Winnie’s family had to be convinced to allow the ANC to speak formally at the funeral, while there is a sideshow around the politics of the ANC Youth League, and how Fikile Mbalula was allowed to speak on their behalf. This is also to be expected. Because events like this are so rare, everyone involved is going to fight for any space they can get, and fight they will, until the very last second. This means decisions will be made on the day, under the greatest possible pressure.

This happens around the world. According to legend, the security details of various world leaders nearly got into a scuffle during the official memorial for Nelson Mandela in 2013, in a holding area underneath the FNB Stadium. That could have been motivated by exactly the same considerations that led to some of Saturday’s events playing out.

In the end, many people were simply waiting for Julius Malema to speak. The Economic Freedom Fighters leader did not disappoint. He spoke at length about how:

“Mama, some of those who sold out to the regime are here, the UDF cabal is here, the cabal that rejected you, disowned you and sent you to the brutal apartheid regime, is here... why did the UDF call a press conference to disassociate yourself from you... because you were never a member of the UDF, you were a member of the ANC.”

He went on in this vein at some length, also criticising people who resigned from the national executive committee of the ANC Women’s League rather than be led by her. Some of the people who did that now hold important positions. Baleka Mbete of course became chair of the ANC and National Assembly Speaker, Lindiwe Zulu, became an ambassador and is now a Cabinet minister, while Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is the Minister of Defence and served as the programme director at the funeral. Interestingly, another member of this group was Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who of course was the woman who ran against Cyril Ramaphosa for the leadership of the ANC last year.

One must question why Malema used this stage to make this particular point. It is almost always a mistake to presume that the leader of an opposition party will not use an opportunity to wound a governing party in any way it can, no matter what kind of restrictions are imposed by protocol. Perhaps Malema simply wanted to stimulate divisions in the party. Although, considering the state of its current “unity”, you would also have to ask if he would really need to bother.

It is also possible that Malema is simply trying to capture the zeitgeist, to run along with the Twitterati, some of whom have already shown they know very little about the facts in question, not that that should ever limit them. The last few days have seen incredible claims made against journalists, based on an interview Madikizela-Mandela gave before her death. Her actual words have been taken out of context. The claims have lacked all credibility. Professor Anton Harber was accused of working for Stratcom despite being the journalist who exposed it, Thandeka Gqubule has faced a similar claim, despite her reporting at the time.

The roots of this may have much more to do with the EFF’s present-day campaign against the media that anything else. It appears that there is what used to be called a whispering campaign, but has morphed into the use of Twitter, to portray certain, the more the better, journalists as untrustworthy. As reputations matter in journalism, it is their reputations that are being attacked. It is difficult to see at this stage how effective this will be, except to say that the truth is on the side of the journalists, and that should be all that they need.

It should also be remembered that the people whose credibility is now being attacked actually fought, in the journalistic trenches at the time, for freedom. The people who attack them on Twitter did not do that, and have no experience or insight into what that must have been like. It is surely wrong to criticise someone like Max du Preez – who left the comfort of Beeld at the time to start an Afrikaans anti-apartheid newspaper – simply because he once worked at Beeld.

While Malema may have been pleased with the furthering of his own particular agenda, Ramaphosa had much more adult problems to address.

His speech, even his critics would have to agree, was truly presidential. Ramaphosa was able to offer something very few politicians have given us recently: an accurate, thoughtful and caring diagnosis of our problems. He explained how:

“We must also recognise our own wounds, we must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future. This may explain why we are so easily prone to anger and to violence... Her own wounds made her real and easy to relate to. It’s only when you experience real pain yourself that you can recognise it in others and offer comfort and healing.

“We have seen and touched those wounds, it is now time to heal the wounds that we have seen, the wounds that were inflicted on all of us, on Mama’ Winnie in the past. And Julius Malema, the wounds that you were talking about, yes, are real wounds, but today is a moment to heal those wounds. Today is a time for healing.”

This was perhaps the best use of tone by a sitting South African president since Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech. It was not just the factual diagnosis that was delivered, and the fact that it was so accurate, it was also the empathy that he was demonstrating. It is simply impossible to imagine his predecessor making such an important point about where we are as a society.

The immediate political impact of this balm applied by Ramaphosa was that it served as an obvious counterpoint to Malema’s anger. The difference was  stark. One of them was about youthful, almost reckless outrage. The other was about calm, thoughtful reflection. Perhaps it could even be said that one was mature, and the other was not.

Malema’s critics would no doubt suggest that it demonstrates that he can be relatively easily upstaged, that while his emotion, which is almost always anger, can be effective, the presentation of a thoughtful solution is also effective politics, especially in the long term. It also suggests that another dynamic may be present in our politics. There is often a lament in certain quarters that Malema is able to constantly steal the limelight, that he gets to set the question and thus almost dominate national debate. But it could well be that this is only true when Ramaphosa is silent. The moment he speaks, Malema is moved off the political stage. This could have bigger implications because while the presumption is that Malema is able to increase his political power by acting in the way that he has been recently, the only proof of that will be in the 2019 elections.

Ramaphosa is the man in charge, he is the one with real political power. And on Saturday, it was easy to see it.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is no longer with us, and her legacy will burn bright for generations to come. But the official mourning period is now over. Which means politicians may have to find other ways to make their points, and should, hopefully, now leave her in peace. DM

Photo: A handout photo made available by the Government Communications and Informations Systems (GCIS) shows South African president Cyril Ramaphosa delivering the Eulogy at the Special Official Funeral service for the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa 14 April 2018. Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson Madela and anti-apartheid activist, passed away in a Johannesburg hospital on 02 April 2018 at age 81. EPA-EFE/Siyabulela Duda

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