Funeral Politics

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa delivering the Eulogy at the Special Official Funeral service for the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa 14 April 2018. Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson Madela and anti-apartheid activist, passed away in a Johannesburg hospital on 02 April 2018 at age 81. EPA-EFE/Siyabulela Duda/GCIS HANDOUT

Saturday’s official funeral for the world to say a final farewell to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was always going to be a political affair, saying much about our politics of the day. Julius Malema attempted to steal the show with an angry diatribe at some people within the ANC. But he may well have been upstaged by President Cyril Ramaphosa who has probably provided the best diagnosis of our problems yet delivered by a sitting politician. At the same time, many more have tried to twist the past to further their own present-day agenda.

This is the kind of thing we have come to expect in our politics. For a politician, dying is often a political act. Someone who was as big, as important, as monumentally significant as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was never going to pass without there being a huge political impact. At the same time, her death, and the ceremonies which followed it, were always going to be used by present-day politicians for their own selfish ends. In our history, since Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, there has only ever been one event bigger than the funeral of Winnie, and that was the funeral of Madiba himself. In other words, this was, for almost everyone involved, a unique opportunity to make a point while reaching a previously impossible audience.

It would be pleasant to think that while this sort of thing was bound to happen, that perhaps there would have been intense planning behind the scenes to prevent any surprises. But it was not to be. City Press reported on Sunday how Winnie’s family had to be convinced to allow the ANC to speak formally at the funeral, while there is a sideshow around the politics of the ANC Youth League, and how Fikile Mbalula was allowed to speak on their behalf. This is also to be expected. Because events like this are so rare, everyone involved is going to fight for any space they can get, and fight they will, until the very last second. This means decisions will be made on the day, under the greatest possible pressure.

This happens around the world. According to legend, the security details of various world leaders nearly got into a scuffle during the official memorial for Nelson Mandela in 2013, in a holding area underneath the FNB Stadium. That could have been motivated by exactly the same considerations that led to some of Saturday’s events playing out.

In the end, many people were simply waiting for Julius Malema to speak. The Economic Freedom Fighters leader did not disappoint. He spoke at length about how:

“Mama, some of those who sold out to the regime are here, the UDF cabal is here, the cabal that rejected you, disowned you and sent you to the brutal apartheid regime, is here… why did the UDF call a press conference to disassociate yourself from you… because you were never a member of the UDF, you were a member of the ANC.”

He went on in this vein at some length, also criticising people who resigned from the national executive committee of the ANC Women’s League rather than be led by her. Some of the people who did that now hold important positions. Baleka Mbete of course became chair of the ANC and National Assembly Speaker, Lindiwe Zulu, became an ambassador and is now a Cabinet minister, while Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is the Minister of Defence and served as the programme director at the funeral. Interestingly, another member of this group was Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who of course was the woman who ran against Cyril Ramaphosa for the leadership of the…

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