SOWETO – South Africans who jeered their president at freedom icon Nelson Mandela’s memorial service spoke of their disillusion at the failure of 20 years of democracy to yield a better life for all.
Jacob Zuma was booed repeatedly by some among the tens of thousands of people gathered to bid a final farewell to the man whose shoes he has sometimes battled to fill.
“They (South Africans) have gained freedom but have not had the gains of freedom. Zuma hasn’t delivered on his promises,” unemployed Ezekiel, 37, said as he exited Soweto’s Soccer City stadium, which hosted the mass homage for Mandela.
Two decades after the 1994 elections that officially ended the racist apartheid regime, millions of black South Africans remain poor, unemployed and without formal housing in a society that is among the world’s most unequal.
Disgruntlement with the African National Congress that Mandela once led has been growing amid claims that Zuma misspent $20 million on upgrading his private residential compound at a time that more and more ordinary citizens are battling to make ends meet.
“It’s because of the scandals. He’s wasting money, building houses for his many wives,” 53-year-old Ella Mokone said of the polygamist president’s public humiliation.
“Madiba never gave his family tenders. Our current president is enjoying with his family, but Madiba never did that, he worked for the people,” said realtor Shadreck Monnakgotla, using the clan name by which Mandela was fondly known.
Phumzile Vilakaza was among those who left the stadium while Zuma was still addressing the crowd.
“I’m not listening to him. He must think about the people down there. We’re fed up with more taxes, toll-gates, prices of food going up, while many of us got no job.”
In Cape Town, some 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) away, Emmerson Lewis, 29, followed the jeering on a giant screen.
“A lot of the people feel like he (Zuma) wanted the respect that the old president had but… he hasn’t earned it,” he said.
Zuma’s immediate predecessor Thabo Mbeki, though unpopular at the time of his party ouster in 2008, received a warm welcome as did Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, under fire internationally for alleged rights violations.
The ANC “condemned” the mourners’ behaviour.
“Whoever was party to that did us, as a country, a disservice,” the Sapa news agency quoted party spokesman Jackson Mthembu as saying.
“It did the Madiba family, who are mourning, and also Mama Graca (Mandela’s widow) and Mama Winnie (his ex-wife)… a terrible disservice.”
The party retains a firm grip on power on the back of its historic status as the liberator of a long-oppressed people, and will likely retain a large majority in elections next April.
It has made some progress: building low cost housing for the poor, providing access to water and electricity and creating a booming middle class known as “Black Diamonds” — partly through its affirmative action policies.
But this does not change the fact that South Africa “is still far from the society that Mandela had in mind,” Institute for Race Relations analyst Frans Cronje recently told AFP.
Amid rapid population growth and the global economic crisis, millions are still living in township slums.
About 20 percent of households still have no running water and 10 percent no electricity in a country where many have private swimming pools and electric fencing.
And despite gains in closing the income gap, almost 100 percent of the nation’s poorest people are still black.