South Africa: Not to Praise Zuma, But to Bury Him

guest column

Every single word that President Jacob Zuma has uttered in praise of Nelson Mandela in recent days is rendered hollow and meaningless by his treatment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Whatever the ins and outs of the twisted decision-making process whereby Tutu was sidelined from the two major events in memory of Mandela, the service at the FNB Stadium and the funeral in Qunu, the fact is that the buck stops with Zuma and had he wished to intervene and place Tutu centre stage, where he belonged, he could have done so.

Yet he chose not to. And in that hand-washing, Pontius Pilate abnegation of responsibility he has revealed himself to be exactly what so many suspected him to be: a vindictive little man in presidential furs, a petty-minded usurper who has no right to call himself Mandela's heir or a worthy leader of Mandela's people. For Zuma to call on South Africans to cherish and preserve the spirit of Mandela while treating Tutu, who incarnates Mandela's spirit as no one else does, with nasty, shabby contempt is vile hypocrisy.

I once asked Tutu to define Mandela for me in a word. After barely a second's thought, with that laser clarity of mind he has, he shot back: "Magnanimity!" Tutu nailed it. Mandela was big-hearted. Mandela was forgiving. Mandela was loyal. He had a big, big soul.

Tutu is the only South African now alive who is in Mandela's class. But he committed the sin in Zuma's eyes of exercising his democratic right – the democratic right Mandela fought for – to be critical of the ANC powers that be, and for that he had to be punished. No big-heartedness from Zuma. No forgivenness, no loyalty.

Just smallness of soul. And monstrous ingratitude.

Tutu, as Zuma seems to have forgotten, was more outspoken than anyone in his condemnation of apartheid during the violent and dangerous 1980's, and for that he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Tutu's home was where Mandela spent his first night of freedom after 27 years in jail.

Tutu would venture courageously into the Johannesburg townships in the early 90's to try and restrain the violence unleashed by the enemies of the ANC. Tutu was the friend in whom Mandela confided his pain over the break-up with his wife Winnie, opening up to him with more intimate candour than he did with any other man. Tutu it was who memorably, joyously introduced Mandela to the crowds at Cape Town's Grand Parade after the opening of South Africa's first democratic parliament with an exultant, "Welcome our brand-new state president, out-of-the-box, Nelson Mandela!"

Yet it was Tutu also who criticised the ANC within months of Mandela coming to power with that famous line, "they have stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on". He would have had little idea then how astute his premonition would turn out to be but Mandela was angry with him at the time, attacking him back, in public. A day later, though, the two spoke on the phone and laughed off their differences.

Had it been Zuma in power then, we can be confident he would have sought some kind of retribution, most likely blocking Tutu from chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. President Mandela not only did not block Tutu, he intervened on his side later when certain sectors of the ANC tried to stop the publication of those parts of the truth commission report that dealt with ANC abuses.

Out of gratitude, friendship and loyalty to an old comrade, Mandela the man would have loved to have had Tutu deliver a big national address in his memory. Mandela the politician would also have wanted Tutu to have played a major part in the funeral proceedings. Mandela was a showman. He had a talent for working a crowd, he understood the power of symbolism to inspire and win over the masses of the people. He knew how to market South Africa to the world.

Had Tutu spoken at the FNB last Tuesday he'd have blown Barack Obama's speech out of the water and instead of the nearly 100 heads of state or government leaving the event with the sense that they had witnessed a fiasco, a flat and inept failure by government to represent South Africa at its best, which is humanity at its best, they'd have gone home wowed by one of the most brilliant, lucid, funny and powerfully moving orators on the planet.

But no. To have put Tutu on stage would have been to put the interests of South Africa first. That is not Zuma's way. His self-serving calculations operate on an altogether meaner and more narrow plane.

The best thing about the ten days between Mandela's death and burial was seeing South Africans of all races and religions and political beliefs coming together in celebration of Mandela's life. The second best thing – a not too distant second – was the thunder of disdain that greeted Zuma's appearance at the FNB stadium, the chorus of boos from the very people for whom Mandela had been a living god. The corruption, the cronyism, the sloppy incompetence in Zuma's management of the affairs of state are all bad enough. His treatment of Tutu is the last straw, laying bare once and for all the tawdriness of his spirit.

Let the booing continue, let it rise to a crescendo of national indignation, until he is driven out of office, all the way home to Nkandla.

John Carlin was South African correspondent for The Independent, London, in the 1990s and author of "Playing the Enemy", the book on which the movie, Invictus (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon) was based. His latest book is Knowing Mandela.

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