Have we just buried our last great leader?

2013-12-15 10:50

The sun was beginning to sink behind the Union Buildings as I looked up into the sky.

A dappled light hung over Sir Herbert Baker’s glorious amphitheatre which held the body of South Africa’s first democratic president?–?the same place where, almost 20 years ago, he had taken the oath of office and ushered in our freedom.

A renegade thought I’d bulleted all week finally came into consciousness: Was the ANC burying its last great president?

The booing does not matter?–?not now?–?but this entire week signalled a profound existential moment for the ANC. Or it should have.

A queue this week to view our founding president’s body was a telling metaphor.

I had stood in a snaking queue to pay my final respects to Chris Hani 20 years ago.

I had sat in the “extra strong” seats when Walter Sisulu and other members of our hero generation had done laps of honour and then again, when Mandela was released.

The FNB Stadium was then a shadow of the beautiful, glowing beer-pot self that it is today.

As is South Africa: it was a shadow then of the lovely country it has become. This is the work of democratic design, not an accident.

I remember that the crowds were poorer then; almost everyone had brought their lunch in packets.

Other than at Hani’s funeral, where the atmosphere was of pent-up and exasperated emotion, I remember the other occasions for their mood of hope and the promise of deliverance by the liberation movement.

This week, you could see that deliverance. Okay, it was Pretoria, home to civil servants and professionals, but my fellow queuers had come from far and wide. Most were well to do: smartly coiffed and dressed in city chic.

We had bought food from the nearby McDonald’s or Steers and kept the hawkers of “same-time” snaps, of ANC kangas emblazoned with Mandela’s image and artists selling his image in tattoo transfers doing a roaring trade.

Some in the queue were state employees, many were students, a few were unemployed and a few, like me, had private sector jobs.

I’d say nearly all of us were beneficiaries of our democracy.

The only colours in that long queue were green, black and gold.

The ANC will spend no time dissecting Tuesday’s booing and will likely put it down to “spoilers” and an “unruly element”.

It will romp home in the next election. But stick with me in my queue for a bit and see why that may be the wrong response.

We stood, orderly and happily, for six hours on a ridiculous route. We listened to cops. We joked and laughed. Then we got onto Madiba Street, the last lap, and jumpers started to break into the queue.

A largely peaceful line of people began shouting and threw them out, grumbling that it wasn’t fair.

Then convoys of big cheeses started screeching past. More grumbles. “They think they’re special,” said someone.

Tongues clicked in irritation. Bigwigs in black ANC umbrellas tried to break into the queue. No luck. More tongues clicking. I think the ANC underestimates its rank and file’s disdain of the governing bling of convoys, Nkandla (a symbol for splurge) and a life lived apart from the masses.

The cops announced that the gates were closing an hour early. We all started toyi-toying to get into the amphitheatre.

A woman muttered that this was Zuma’s doing. As we trekked back to find a cab home, I eavesdropped on conversations. Almost all were about the booing, almost all by people in ANC colours.

ANC members will vote for the party because it has delivered, but I think many will stay away or give their vote to Julius Malema.

Taxiloads of Economic Freedom Fighters hooting past us in Madiba Street attracted “Vivas” from our queue and the red beret as a political fashion accessory got many an admiring glance from young ANC supporters.

The ANC Youth League, which birthed Mandela, went from killing for Zuma to dying this year.

It’s a pity the ANC’s evolving political culture means that it is deaf to the people on the streets.

Party conferences are no longer a mosaic of its entirety, a poll of the masses. They comprise deployed cadres, powerful patrons who run branches, tenderpreneurs who grease its coffers and invested bureaucrats. So are its ward committees. And, let’s be frank, the ANC?–?with one in three members from KwaZulu-Natal?–?is becoming increasingly provincial.

The spoilers at FNB Stadium were from Gauteng, but the province is a migrants’ capital and probably represents a wider dissatisfaction.

The elite at the national conference are the corps of people who choose the country’s president and the rest of our leadership.

It is not a system that allows the cream to rise to the top – nor will it allow another Mandela to be born.

I can imagine that as one walks up the stairs of the Union Buildings, one can hear the voices of the women who had marched against the dompas in 1956, it must have been music to the ears.

Walking away, I could hear the voices of the past, but the voices of the future are muted.

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