Will the public barracking of the South African president mark the beginning of the end for the politics of wishful thinking in Africa?

Something exceptionally important has happened in South Africa at the memorial event staged for the late Nelson Mandela. The current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was booed, repeatedly booed, every time he appeared on the giant screens.

You may remember that during the Olympic Games George Osborne, who was giving out a medal, was booed by the crowd in the stadium. This was no big deal, and it did not tell us anything we did not already know. In the UK, politicians as a class are not popular; Mr Osborne is not popular; and the sort of crowds that collect in stadia are generally not obsequious to those in authority. So the booing of Mr Osborne was not politically significant; any more so than the various things thrown at John Prescott were ever politically significant.

But Zuma is another matter. In Africa one does not criticise one’s elders; and one does not show a lack of respect to one’s superiors, especially in front of others. That Mr Zuma was repeatedly booed by an overwhelmingly black crowd, who knew that the world was watching them and was hearing them, must have been devastating for Mr Zuma himself and also deeply embarrassing to the other South African dignitaries present. Indeed, several of them tried to get the crowd to be ‘disciplined’.

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So what does this mean?

It means that an important line has been crossed. In the past people may well have criticised Zuma in private for his various failings, but now that the anger and hatred directed at him is public, one can expect the floodgates to open. The Emperor is revealed as having no clothes, and the culture of deference, once smashed, can never be revived. Moreover, this means an end, or at least the beginning of the end, to the politics of wishful thinking, which so relies on the idolisation of African leaders.

This idolisation has gone on long enough. Many African leaders have been treated as heroes and liberators in a way that quite overlooks the damage they have done to their countries. They have never been answerable for these actions, and their careers have never been evaluated in the harsh light of reality, only in the soft light of hero-worship.

Now that Zuma has fallen off his pedestal and is revealed as having feet of clay, perhaps we are entering a new era in Africa, where politicians will be held more accountable for their deeds and true democracy may flourish.

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