Why They Booed at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial

It wasn’t a sign of disrespect for the beloved leader, but an expression of the deep political divide plaguing South Africa.

South Africans outside Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg after attending the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Dec. 10, 2013
South Africans outside Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg after attending the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Dec. 10, 2013 MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The first sign that something was off at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday came when the crowd of 60,000 people started booing en masse—a low, bovine sound that shook the Soweto stadium and seemed terribly at odds with the patient, forgiving man who brought them here.

They were not booing Mandela; they were booing the current president, Jacob Zuma, who has recently been embroiled in a major corruption scandal.

It was weird. It was awkward. And it was live on international television.

There came one welcome respite—a soaring yet intimate eulogy delivered masterfully by U.S. President Barack Obama, who reminded the crowd why they had come to pay respects to Mandela. 

But in a way that many of us who live and work here know, the crowd’s reaction to the ceremony and the figures who led it laid bare—live, to the entire world—the many deep wounds and contradictions that plague this nation.

South Africans like to call Mandela “Tata,” or father, and often behave as if he is an actual family member. But many are wont to forget that the forgiving, grandfatherly figure known for his love of children and his passion for protecting the powerless was, at his core, a politician. It seems impossible, somehow, that talk of Mandela won’t eventually turn to politics, as it has in recent days, as growing numbers of South Africans have expressed confusion over whom to vote for now that he is gone.

South Africans love to extol Mandela as a man of peace, of forgiveness. Yet he was also the man who decided that the African National Congress, then a banned party, should seek a violent solution to ending the apartheid regime.

And Mandela preached unity and lovingly described this ethnically diverse country as a rainbow nation—yet when the stadium stood to sing the country’s multilingual national anthem, which is a mix of Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English, his own grandchildren sat with stony faces, refusing to sing the verses in Afrikaans, the language associated with the architects of apartheid.

But back to the booing, which was also accompanied, comically, by the rotating hand gesture used in soccer to indicate a player substitution—and which reared its head every time Zuma was mentioned or put on-screen.

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