Cheer up: Boo to Memorial Service

In September, a famous South African rugby player, took a publisher to court for intending to release a biography of the player, with sordid details of his extra-marital affairs, drug binges, etc. This happens now at a time when there is public sympathy for the rugby player because of his terminal illness, a motor-neuron disease, that has left the rugby player near paralyzed. The court ruled in favor of the publisher. It said that since the life of the rugby player was of a public nature it did not warrant a violation of his privacy to write about his personal life, which he himself had, up until now, not tried to conceal.[1]

This incident came to mind as many South Africans stood appalled at the boo-ing that unfolded at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. They felt that the occasion was one of mourning and contemplation in the face of the former president’s death, and was not the right platform for the people to express their grievances about the current leadership of the ruling party (ANC). My argument follows that of the court’s ruling on the rugby players life, that Mandela’s life was a public affair—with global appeal. As such the occasion of a memorial service in honour of such a giant, warranted a public platform enough that citizens are welcomed to express the dissatisfaction with current political matters. More especially since Mandela himself identified himself as a member of the ANC, any grievance held by the public against the ANC should have found occasion in his memorial service.

Their response was therefore not out of turn, or insensitive to the family’s bereavement. In as much as the rugby player’s family may not have wanted to hear of his youthful lifestyle, when he is on a wheelchair, his life was now of public attention.

Public life is in its nature invasive. When one chooses to enter the spotlight s/he has to carry the burdens of having your personal matters brought to the public, and vice versa.

But my concern is more on the tone of those who have lambasted the boo-ing.

Most of the responses have fitted into three categories:

  1. The claim that boo-ing (at a memorial service) is un-African.
  2. That doing so was disrespectful.
  3. That those who boo-ed are hooligans, and like children who cannot behave, and have brought shame on the country during a global viewership.


There are interesting histories to all three of these associations that are attributable to the post-liberation African impulse.

The criticism of being un-African (point 1) seeks to draw inspiration from older (traditional) forms of authority relations; but really these are new phenomenon hiding behind the pretense of old loyalties. The danger in these kinds of invocations lies in their distribution of claims, unfairly located in the claims of those who belong to the ruling party, and those who readily identify with its lip-service ideals.[2]

My concern is how the language holds citizens in contempt without articulating legitimate grounds over which their complaints can be heard and responded to—to their own satisfaction as the rightful heirs of the country and its resources. In other words, hidden in this drama of horror at the voices of the masses, is the cordoning of space where public outcries are permissible and are seen to matter. Who are they, the ones we have installed in power, to tell us that a public space where we have chosen to express our grievances non-violently was inappropriate. The very same people we fought alongside when we forced the apartheid government to listen to us through violence.

At the heart of the contention is the imminent exposure of their lack of control. No longer do they hold that ‘magic’ over the people that they did during Mandela’s presidency, as increasing levels of corruption erode confidence in their leadership and as new modes of citizenship engagement arise, made available through social networks (especially Facebook) and instant messaging.[3]

So what they are in fact demanding is the entrenchment of new privileges to those who are in power; such as deference, submissiveness (if not indeed timidity and fear). The language of belittlement, where citizens are addressed as though they are children is unsurprising (point 3). It is a feature proper to this realm where areas of influence and legitimacy are beginning to crumble. Those in power indulge in the self-deception, convincing themselves that they are simply dealing with children (not yet fully developed). It allows them to dismiss their public outcry altogether. What we are left with in the end is a fuzzy picture: where people’s actions are depicted as bizarre and leadership responds with bafflement.[4]

But this is not as hopeless a situation as things may appear. What is in fact happening is the gurgling, of the ‘real’ new South Africa, now ready to be born. Things will begin to look more and more theatrical, as those who rule clinch to power, and citizens awake and demand more.

Boldness, patience and strong-will shall win the day.

“I’ve told you this so that My peace will be with you. In the world you’ll have trouble. But cheer up! I have overcome the world.”—John 16:33

[2] In the case of the ANC: non-racialism, equal opportunity, non-sexist, non-violence.

[3] One needs to think of all the humorous images of Jacob Zuma that were circulating on Facebook on the day of the incident.

[4] With leadership’s response more strongly aired in the media than that of the public.