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December 9, 2013 5:50 pm
When Thabo Mbeki rose to speak at a prayer service held in memory of Nelson Mandela, the icon he succeeded as president, he touched on an issue that has been in the thoughts of many South Africans in recent days.
“I think to celebrate his life properly we need to ask ourselves a question about the quality of leadership,” said Mr Mbeki, who has rarely spoken on domestic politics since leaving office five years ago. “To say, to what extent are we measuring up to the standard [Mandela and his generation] set in terms of the quality of leadership?”
It is a question many South Africans are asking as they prepare to say goodbye to their beloved first black president, with conversations often turning to how the current crop of leaders of Mandela’s African National Congress party compare to him. Often the views are unflattering as corruption scandals and cronyism in the ANC threaten to cast a cloud over his legacy.
“The ANC is arrogant and corrupt and taking us in a different direction from what Madiba [Mandela’s clan name] told us,” Moagi Morake, an ANC supporter, said.
Such complaints take on additional resonance as the ANC gears up for elections next year – the 20th anniversary of Mandela steering the liberation movement to a historic victory at the first democratic vote. And it will be led into the ballot by President Jacob Zuma, who led a bitter ANC battle against Mr Mbeki, forcing him from office in 2008, and who, dogged by sex and corruption scandals, is a focus for much of the criticism.
The ANC has dominated politics since 1994 and is expected to win next year’s poll. But as new parties emerge and the ANC’s credibility wanes, many commentators are predicting its share of the vote will fall to its lowest level in two decades.
Whether Mandela’s death will have any impact on ANC support is moot, with the election, expected to be in April or May, months away. Mandela had also been absent from day-to-day politics for more than decade.
Yet for days, the ANC has been attaining global exposure as supporters have danced and sung in celebration of Mandela’s life. In Soweto, the black township, traders set up stalls on the street where Mandela once lived and sold black, green and gold ANC regalia as hundreds of people flocked to party and pay homage.
The passing and legacy of South Africa’s first black president
At the same time, the stream of Mandela eulogies and clips of his finest speeches have acted as poignant reminders of his and the ANC’s rich history and its most glorious moments while inadvertently providing a contrast with the modern party.
“If you consider that the ANC colours, flags, important moments in history have been beamed into people’s ears like never before, it can’t but benefit the ANC,” says Pallo Jordan, an ANC veteran and cabinet minister throughout Mandela’s 1994-1999 presidency. “On the other hand, maybe the invidious comparisons will be damaging.”
Mr Jordan questioned whether any ANC leader – or world leader – would compare to Mandela: “One of the curses of being in the company of greatness is that they raise the bar very high.”
But the legacy has been a particular burden for Mr Zuma, who came into office under the shadow of corruption charges related to a multibillion dollar arms deal that were dropped allegedly following political interference. Since becoming president, he has had a child out of wedlock with the daughter of a friend, been accused of using state funds to upgrade a sprawling private residence, had his leadership challenged by his deputy and been forced to dismiss several top officials over corruption allegations.
Dumisani Mashinini, who says he has been a life long ANC member, spent Sunday evening in Soweto, joining those celebrating the former president’s life.
Many were in ANC T-shirts and spirits were high as the beer flowed and crowds danced up and down the street to the soulful singing of old ANC struggle songs. But Mr Mashinini was in a more pensive mood. For the first time, he is not sure he will vote for the ANC.
“Part of what is happening is we are taking stock, because most people have not been happy about where the country is going,” he said. “The pessimism now is so huge . . . We know this organisation has had its ups and downs over the years, but it cannot allow one leader [Zuma] to take it down.”
His hope is that the period of reflection will lead to the ANC mending its ways. “I hope this will revive the old spirit,” the 40-year-old said. “I think this process of grieving will force other leaders of the ANC to say, what are we doing, we will not allow this man’s [Mandela’s] legacy to go down.”
Others were more upbeat. “Watch this space, the ANC is going to get two-thirds [of the votes],” said Busi Vilankulu. “This will bring more unity for the country and the ANC. The ANC is not about a human being, it’s about the party.”
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