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Judith February: This is a democracy after all

These have been strange days for our country since we heard of Madiba's passing last week.

Collectively, it is the moment of our greatest sorrow. For a while after the announcement it was hard to find the words to express quite how profound Madiba's impact has been in political terms and on our national psyche.

As the week progressed South Africans streamed to various sites, most notably Madiba's Houghton home, Vilakazi street in Soweto and then finally on Tuesday, the FNB stadium in Orlando. We expressed our sadness with flowers, cards and candles but also celebrated the privilege of having lived in Madiba's lifetime with song and dance.

The memorial service came on the back of this unprecedented outpouring of affection for Madiba. Logistics were predictably challenging and the weather did not play its part. A poor sound system did not help matters either.

It also soon became clear that sections of the crowd were determined to use this occasion to show their displeasure with President Zuma. Some bad camera work and editing left Zuma completely exposed to the vitriol of the crowd - in full view of the guests and dignitaries who had gathered, as well as the world's media.

It was unfortunate that the moment was used to express such dissatisfaction with Zuma. It was inappropriate, yet we should not be that surprised or too alarmed by it. This is a democracy, after all; loud, messy and sometimes unruly.

We are also a country at odds with ourselves, full of unfinished business, contradictions and complexity and a democratic culture which is far from embedded. The FNB stadium seemed to contain all this discomfort and contradiction: race and class differences, the party elite and the masses of the people, world leaders and local leaders and religious groups all in one place.

At times it felt as if the stadium would metaphorically strain at the seams in its inability to contain the voices. Yet, what the day reflected was the ANC as a party at odds with itself and its legacy, battling to find its 'centre' and with it the 'centre' of South African politics and public life.

Where is the compass that Madiba provided for us during the heady years of the transition, Chris Hani's assassination and the Boipatong massacre we ask ourselves? Where do we find such principled, fearless leadership in the current ANC?

For the ANC, which Mandela loved and dedicated his life to, is racked with division. Far from being 'the People's President', Zuma himself has played no small part in sowing the seeds of that division. Eventually of course one pays the price for divisive politics and those were uncomfortably laid bare on Tuesday. The crowd of boo-ers is not of course representative of the feelings of the entire country. Had this memorial service taken place in Zuma's KwaZulu-Natal heartland the reception would have been very different.

Nevertheless, the boo-ing should surely raise questions for the ruling party? Is the ANC able to learn from its mistakes and summon the moral courage of its formidable history and build on Madiba's transformative vision for South Africa as embodied in our Constitution?

We also need to ask ourselves whether as citizens we are able to summon the discipline of 1994 to hold our leaders to account and build the inclusive, more equal society we all seek? As Barack Obama said in what can only be described as a speech of technical and rhetorical brilliance, 'The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.'

The answers to our challenges do not present easily conjured up answers yet as Obama again reminded us, it is the power of 'reason' that Madiba understood so well. It is that reason which we seem to have lost in our every day debates as government and the ANC often appropriate spaces for debate by shutting other dissenting voices out.

Much will be said about the memorial service, about the too long speeches and the dearth of singing, about the admonishment to the crowd by Ramaphosa looking near-Presidential, of Ban Ki-Moon's perspicacious speech from the peoples of the world and Obama's soaring rhetoric. But, at the end of the day, this was a deeply South African moment. It held within it all that we are, the good and the bad, the past and the present.

The ANC will be grateful for the small mercy of rural Qunu as Madiba heads to his final resting place. A heavy pall of grief hangs over the little village in which Madiba grew up. He is of Qunu and to Qunu he returns. It is a sign of his greatness that he chose to finally rest in so ordinary and rural a place. Amidst all the political clamour and global celebrity he will return to his roots, deeply beloved architect of our democracy, principled statesman yet at the end of it all and perhaps above all, a proud son of the Thembu.

Judith February is executive director of democracy and governance at the HSRC. The views expressed are her own.

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