Political Tensions Visible at Mandela Memorial

A memorial service for Nelson Mandela drew thousands on December 10, including leaders of over 100 different countries around the world. Among the speakers at the memorial were president Obama, and current South African president, Jacob Zuma. Though the event paid tribute to Mandela, signs of ongoing political contention were not absent from the service.

Current South African president, Jacob Zuma elicited booing from the crowd during his speech, while the crowd welcomed former President Thabo Mbeki with cheers. With elections set for next year, South Africans are particularly vocal about their dissatisfaction with current leadership and the direction that Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, has taken in recent years. Zuma ended his speech with a political plug for his party saying, “Mandela believed in collective leadership…He recognized that all of his achievements were a result of working with the A.N.C. collective.”

One man interviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek expressed his dissatisfaction with the current president explaining, “Zuma has made too many blunders. He only favors his own friends. He’s not following Mandela’s path. He’s abandoned the values of Mandela.” When former President Thabo Mbeki took the podium, many in the crowd showed their loyalty by making the hand signal that indicates substitution during soccer matches.

Reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth.

-President Obama

While debate over South Africa’s future leadership continues, others are questioning the diplomatic implications of certain events during Mandela’s memorial service. Reporters were quick to capture photos and videos of President Obama’s handshake with Cuban president, Raul Castro. Critics will undoubtedly disapprove of Obama’s public gesture of good will toward the leader of America’s long-time communist foe. The handshake between the two presidents may seem only appropriate at an event focused on forgiveness. But the New York Times points out that the interaction was no accident, given the high level of planning by presidential aides for events such as these.

The White House declined to comment on the significance of the handshake. But just minutes after the interaction, President Obama said in his speech, “reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth.” The question ultimately remains whether President Obama’s gesture was emblematic of diplomatic intentions.

Perhaps ironically, Mandela’s relationships with Cuba and other nations have been criticized by the United States in the past. Since Cuba and Libya’s support of Mandela and his liberation struggle, South Africa has continued a amicable relationship with both nations. In 1997, the Clinton administration chastised Mandela for visiting Libya despite the country’s many human rights violations. But for Mandela, loyalty trumped almost everything else in issues of diplomacy. “We will never renounce our friends,” he once said in response to U.S. criticism.

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