President Jacob Zuma must be thoroughly sick of funerals.
Political funerals are a unique spectacle in South Africa. Sure, like in other countries, it is a moment for the bigwigs of the day and those of days gone by to muse solemnly about this or that detail of the deceased person's life. What they did that year. This joke they once told. That speech they gave which changed things. We seem to regard this as a terrible waste, so our political funerals are instead a handy space to iron out the issues of the day, and to project our feelings into the future. Funeral? The running of the bulls in Pamplona is more solemn.
Zuma leans over all of us — a desert colossus whose shadow blackens everything it touches. An Ozymandias for this age of pink slips, plunder, social grants crises and striking workers shot down like stray dogs by the police. Those who don't like don't last. Not inside the party. And not inside the government. They are cast out, and there in the outskirts they must lick their wounds and bide their time.
Zuma controls political rallies. His army of maybe-cops in white control Parliament. His camp followers control the various structures that are worth controlling. But he doesn't control funerals though. Oh no.
Cast your mind back to December 2013, to the most important memorial service this country will ever hold. The entire world was there. Robert Mugabe and Raul Castro received their comradely welcome from the Soweto crowd. Barack Obama entered like a championship boxer. And then Zuma's name was announced. Pandemonium ensued in the stands as Bheki Cele and other heavyweights (literally) scrambled into the ground to quash the unmistakable sound of a crowd of thousands roundly booing their leader.
Last year, Makhenkesi Stofile the former sports minister and ambassador to Germany was laid to rest in the Eastern Cape. His funeral was a who's who of African National Congress (ANC) heavyweights. Except for the president, who was informed by the family that his former comrade's dying wish had been that he be disinvited from speaking at his funeral. So he didn't go. It was just as well — Sipho Pityana stood up and challenged him directly. He said, "Bendizakumbongoza, ndimngxengxeze, ndithi mkhulwana wam, Msholozi, Nxamalala, nikezela iintambo, kunyembelekile."
As it was, Zuma wasn't there to receive the challenge to resign for his mismanagement of the country first-hand. But a precedent was set.
There had, however, been time for one person to be disinvited.
As per the Islamic custom, the funeral for Ahmed Kathrada, the struggle stalwart and Robben Island alumnus was held the day after he died. There was hardly time for the kinds of preparations that accompany these special official funerals. There were no special VIP areas, no metal detectors at the entrances, and no formal invitations sent out. "Nobody was invited here, you all just came," said Neeshan Balton, head of Kathrada's foundation, at some point. True. I was there on the same basis and footing as anyone else. Beside me on one side sat a bishop. On my other side sat some of Kathrada's old friends and neighbours. Just in front of me was Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and Dali Tambo, mixed in together with children in their school uniforms, and with ordinary members of the public. It was genteel, convivial, very egalitarian. Very Uncle Kathy.
There had, however, been time for one person to be disinvited. "President Zuma will not attend the funeral and memorial service in compliance with the wishes of the family. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will lead the government delegation to the funeral and memorial service," read a statement from the Presidency.
So he wasn't there. Kathrada's old comrades Andrew Mlangeni, George Bizos and Laloo Chiba were there. Ramaphosa was too, as the most senior government representative. As were former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, several Cabinet ministers including Pravin Gordhan. The ANC sent its secretary-general Gwede Mantashe on its behalf. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema was there. As more and more government, political and trade union big shots walked into the tent, Number One's absence became overwhelmingly apparent.
That could have been the political statement. As first, it seemed that it would suffice. The first speakers — Chiba, Sophie Williams-de Bruyn and nephew Nazir Kathrada — praised the great man and left it at that.
Then Cosatu's general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali got up and repeated Kathrada's words that leaders are not the organisation. They come and go, and should never think of themselves as bigger than the organisation.
The South African Communist Party's Blade Nzimande was next. Yes, it was definitely getting political. "No to the parasitic patronage network" that had taken over the ruling party and the government, he said. Yes. Super political.
It was Motlanthe's turn next. But first, take another short detour with me, this time to the ANC's 53rd national conference, held in Bloemfontein in 2012. Zuma, keen on a second term and unwilling to take any chances, offered Motlanthe the deputy president position on his slate. Effectively, it would have given the delegates only one set of top-six leaders to choose from, the kind of elections you see in many one-party states. He ran anyway, knowing he was much weaker politically, but unable to countenance the direction that the party was taking. He lost. It was something to behold — the end of a splendid political career, dashed on the rocks of factionalism and rentierism.
It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failure of politics."
Back to the funeral, where the all-powerful has no control. Motlanthe stood up. "It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failure of politics," he said.
He then read from a letter that Kathrada sent to Zuma last year, asking him to step down. "The position of president is one that must at all times unite this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today for all South Africans. It is a position that requires the respect of all South Africans, which of course must be earned at all time," Motlanthe read.
"And bluntly, if not arrogantly, in the face of such persistently widespread criticism, condemnation and demand, is it asking too much to express the hope that you will choose the correct way that is gaining momentum, to consider stepping down?" he read.
Those who were there in that auditorium in Bloemfontein as Motlanthe sat alone in defeat may have discerned a strain of sweet revenge in that moment. This probably isn't in keeping with the man's character. But at Kathrada's funeral, the moment was profound. The effect was electric. The entire gathering rose to its feet, roaring and clapping. (Somewhere in the gathering, Ramaphosa, keenly aware of the Cabinet meeting he must attend after the funeral, kept his seat.)
If Zuma hated the Stofile funeral, this would have enraged him. There, in the full pomp of government and party ceremony, the man he thought he'd finally defeated and exiled four years ago pointed right at him and, using the now-immortal words of Kathrada, called him unworthy to lead this country. And the comrades cheered.
We sat back, slightly aghast. It's one thing when we political scribes write about drawn knives. It's quite another to watch a political rival draw a metaphorical gun at his opponent and mouth the word "bang".
As if that hadn't been clear enough, Balton asked: "Where's Pravin Gordhan? Please stand up, sir." The beleaguered (and very shy) finance minister stood up. "Irrespective of whether you're a minister in the days or weeks to come, you remain true to the values and principles that Ahmed Kathrada would be proud of," Balton told him.
By all indications, Gordhan was only available for the funeral because Zuma suddenly yanked him back from a planned and official overseas trip... Now, he was present for perhaps the most powerful political statement of the day, receiving the warm applause of everybody in the room. (Did I mention that Malema was there too?)
Who knows what tomorrow holds? A new finance minister? A tanked currency and weakened retirement savings? More scandal? But in an election year (for this is what 2017 is for the ANC) when the dominant faction has done everything in its power to preserve itself by preventing anyone who might want to run against its anointed successor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the divisions have been blown wide open. The aftermath of Stofile's funeral was Save SA, the sort-of corporate version of an anti-Zuma camp. The aftermath of the Kathrada funeral could prove to be much more powerful and effective. Anyone who wants to stand up to the president may now do so with the blessing of one of the ANC's saints.