Boo Politics

As an American sports fan (particularly one from Philadelphia), you come to expect spectators to wear their displeasure on their sleeves -- to jeer, boo and cajole at the first inkling of disapproval, ineptitude or betrayal. When St. Louis Cardinals rightfielder J.D. Drew arrived in Philadelphia for the first time since refusing to sign a rookie contract with the Phillies two years before, a crowd of 48,514 chided him relentlessly every time he stepped to the plate, swung the bat, fielded a ball or was shown on the big screen. Towards the end of the game, displeased with Drew's (successful) performance that night, fans in the right field bleachers began showering him with size-D batteries when he took the field.

Stumbling hometown heroes can expect more than a cold shoulder, too. In 2008, Notre Dame football fans pelted players from their own school with snowballs after the Fighting Irish were upset at home by Syracuse.

Unpopular politicians are treated no differently than embattled sports stars. A sellout crowd roundly booed President George W. Bush as he tossed the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals '08 home opener. And just last month, a smattering of fans at a college basketball game at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center booed President Obama as he looked on from his courtside seats.

The president responded as best he could -- he stuck his fingers in his ears and smiled.

This brings us to the awkward situation South African President Jacob Zuma found himself in at Nelson Mandela's memorial service on December 10 when he was pelted with a barrage of metaphorical size-D batteries and snowballs.

The ceremony, part of a 10-day farewell to the country's first black leader and international human rights icon, was held at FNB stadium (aka "Soccer City") -- a cavernous 90,000 seat open-air arena that was home to the 2010 FIFA World Cup and host of countless rugby and soccer matches as well as concerts. When images of Zuma appeared on the large overhead screens, tens of thousands of onlookers who packed the stadium booed loudly for long, sustained intervals. Officials at SABC, a public television station that was carrying a live feed of the event, meanwhile, instructed producers to cut away every time the president was booed so as not to embarrass the ANC's leadership.

Too late.

Following the booing incident, Zuma's critics and supporters took to the country's editorial pages to defend their positions. Proponents of those booing argued that Mandela created a free and open democratic society that would accept or even welcome the kind of criticism of government officials that the FNB crowd displayed. As an editorial in the Mail & Guardian stated, "the booers were simply using the democratic space Mandela opened up for all South Africans. In that ... they were trying to recover some of what has been lost since Mandela ceased to be our president, for his leadership helped to inaugurate a new era of openness and free democratic contestation -- a space that his successors began to try to shut down."

With the world's attention focused squarely on South Africa and with the country's citizens still in mourning, Zuma's defenders countered that the dissenters' boos embarrassed and disrespected the entire country by attempting to hijack the events' global coverage and turn what should have been a somber memorial into a political attack. "[W]hatever problems the booers may have with the president, this memorial was not the time or place to give vent to them. The eyes of the world were upon South Africa, and specifically upon the stadium where the memorial was held; a host of world leaders were lined up to speak or to pay their respects to the deceased, and Zuma would surely have been humiliated in their eyes. Why ... can people who oppose Zuma's presidency of the ANC not express their feelings at the ballot box?"

Despite questions of appropriateness, the booers laid bare some ugly political truths. Yes, Zuma garnered strong support at the ANC's national conference earlier this year but public opposition to both the president and the ruling party has been mounting. In particular, Zuma has come under fire for allegedly misusing state money to upgrade his private residence in Nkandla -- including construction of a swimming pool, amphitheatre and cattle enclosure on the compound as well as residences for his relatives. Zuma and government officials have maintained that the $20 million renovations were done for security reasons (the Department of Public works argues, for instance, that the swimming pool is actually a 'fire pool' to extinguish blazes).

While the incident at FNB was not exactly a turning point for the country -- almost no one expects the ANC to lose in the upcoming elections -- it did expose the rest of the world to the souring state of South African politics in the most unflattering manner possible. To regain their footing, the ANC can ill-afford to stick their fingers in their ears and smile much longer. In the meantime, party officials should steer clear of public events that promise snow.

An earlier version of this post appeared in U.S. News & World Report.