The long yawn in Limpopo

It takes some doing to make Nelson Mandela's phenomenal life sound dull and dreary. President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday turned the legendary life and times of South Africa's most loved citizen into a 4790-word chronological biography - a condensed, insipid version of The Long Walk to Freedom - which Zuma rattled off in a laboured monotone.

This was a much-anticipated commemorative lecture in honour of the ANC's 10th president, and the first state president of democratic South Africa, as part of the ANC's centenary celebrations. The event at Shayandima in Thohoyandou, Limpopo, was the seventh in a series of a dozen lectures, each commemorating the life of the ANC's 12 presidents. This month was specially chosen to honour Mandela as the elder statesman turns 94 on 18 July, and it was the ideal opportunity for the organisation to which he dedicated his life to pay homage while he is still alive.

Nelson Mandela evokes feelings of much love and adoration, and the nation holds its breath every time reports emerge of his ailing health. His words and image are used across the globe to symbolise the quest for human dignity and freedom. The remarkable events that led to Mandela's 27-year imprisonment, and his journey to the presidency, are known the world over. It does not take much to stir emotion around his exceptional character and contribution to reconciliation in South Africa. And yet.

Zuma's chronological rundown of Mandela's curriculum vitae was, at best, laziness by his speechwriters and, at worst, an insult to the world icon.

It was only at the end of the speech that Zuma provided a little interpretation of Mandela's life: "The abiding lesson to us is that all South Africans should continue the reconciliation project that he so passionately led on behalf of the ANC. For it to succeed, it should be a two-way process. Our differences should not set us apart from one another, but should be the compelling reason for us to draw closer to forge a common future, all of us, black and white."

But the event was highly anticipated for more reasons than honouring Mandela's life. Limpopo is the home and playground of Zuma's arch-nemesis, expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. The province's ANC is further hostile to the president after national government effectively took over the running of the province and usurped many of the powers under the control of premier Cassel Mathale, Malema's ally.

Zuma has not been seen in Limpopo for some time. He was noticeably absent from the Limpopo provincial conference in December when Mathale was re-elected as ANC chairman.

The relationship with leaders in the provincial government soured further in the past few weeks after the scandal surrounding the non-delivery of textbooks to schools in Limpopo, which unearthed a blame game between the two spheres of government. To add insult to injury, Dickson Masemola, the MEC for education in Limpopo and face of the textbook scandal, was the MC at the lecture.

ANC security and the police threw a ring of steel around the area ahead of Zuma's visit, as it was expected that he would be booed or that Malema's supporters would cause a scene to mar the proceedings. The security contingent included the police air wing, dog unit, bomb disposal unit and riot squad. The accreditation process was particularly stringent with the ANC restricting access to anyone perceived to be Malema's allies.

The ANC made a concerted effort to prevent the recurrence of an embarrassing incident in the Western Cape in February when Malema supporters disrupted Zuma's memorial lecture. The intelligence that a coordinated disruption would take place in Thohoyandou on Tuesday proved to be correct, as scuffles occurred inside and outside the church where the event took place.

City Press reported that around eight Malema supporters were arrested outside the church after a group they were in sang anti-Zuma songs and clashed with police.

Some in the group were wearing Malema t-shirts and holding a banner reading "Bring Back Malema". They sang songs including "shower ya re sokodisa" (shower is giving us problems); "magwala a chechele moraho" (let the cowards move back) and "mmuso wa Zuma re a o phetola" (we're toppling Zuma's leadership).

Inside the hall, Limpopo youth league secretary Jacob Lebogo was roughed up by uniformed members of the ANC's former armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, after he was seen singing songs calling for change and making the substitution sign usually used by soccer fans. Malema's allies claimed last night that youth league members were irritated by people singing songs calling for a second term for Zuma, which provoked Lebogo and other members of the league to stand up and sing songs calling for change.

Teargas was used to break up the scuffle, causing some people to choke and experience breathing difficulties. Some had to leave the hall to escape the fumes. The teargas was still evident in the hall during Zuma's speech, as he remarked on it when it caused him to choke at one stage.

After the clashes, Zuma's security detail was anxious to get him to leave as soon as possible, and there was an attempt to hurry through the programme. Even the ANC centenary flame, which MK members normally carry in a solemn goosestep, was taken hurriedly to the stage.

Just before the scuffles, Mathole Motshekga, the ANC national executive committee deployee in Limpopo who was part of the team coordinating the event, told the SABC that there were "no tensions or animosity in this region against the leadership of the ANC".

He claimed that the heavy security presence was part of "normal precautionary measures".

Speaking after the clashes in the hall, which resulted in the dispensing of teargas, police minister Nathi Mthethwa said the MK members and police removed people who "started hurling insults" and singing "derogatory songs".

"Tensions and competition (in the ANC) can never constitute a problem, but moving outside of the boundaries of the law cannot be tolerated," Mthethwa said, referring to the protesters as "rotten apples".

On Tuesday evening, sources claimed that Zuma supporters were brought in by bus from KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga for the lecture to make sure the hall was full and to sing songs in praise of Zuma. Before and after Zuma's speech, the audience spontaneously broke out in Zuma's trademark campaign anthem "Mshini wam".

While attention was on the events at Thohoyandou, another sideshow emerged when reports surfaced of a letter written by Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to the ANC in which she accused the organisation of disrespecting the elder statesman's family.

The Mail & Guardian reported that in email correspondence, addressed to ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu, Madikizela-Mandela said the family "rejected" the ANC's request for a meeting in relation to the centenary celebrations.

Madikizela-Mandela said in the past the ANC "never had any interest in celebrating Tata's [Mandela's] birthday except to gate crash on the family's arrangements" and that its attitude towards the family proved that "we do not matter at all".

"The family is still grappling with the most shabby treatment throughout the years, especially in Mangaung in January this year. As I indicated we are deeply hurt as the family," Madikizela-Mandela wrote.

Madikizela-Mandela also condemned the ANC for purporting to care about her well-being, when neither Zuma nor Mthembu visited her when she was hospitalised, or called to wish her a speedy recovery.

Mthembu told the Mail & Guardian the ANC would not comment on private correspondence between the party and the families of former presidents.

Altogether, what was meant to be a day when the ANC paid special tribute to the father of the nation turned out to be a combination of an unseemly scrap, a lousy speech and a tantrum by his ex-wife.

Hopefully the father of the nation is blissfully unaware of all this.

This column also appeared in The Daily Maverick