JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The booing of South African President Jacob Zuma at Nelson Mandela's memorial laid bare popular anger against him, but the thick-skinned ANC leader can call on a powerful political base to carry him and the party through elections next year.
Zuma, who was popular when he took over the presidency of Africa's largest economy in 2009, suffered public humiliation on Tuesday in front of world leaders when thousands attending the rain-soaked Mandela commemoration booed and jeered him.
The president, no stranger to criticism in a scandal-plagued tenure, endured the public pillorying with a stony face. But it must have hurt him to hear those who booed, some wearing African National Congress (ANC) T-shirts, then cheering U.S. President Barack Obama and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
Even more painful would have been the audible cheers for apartheid's last white leader, former President F.W. de Klerk, and even for former President Thabo Mbeki, the man Zuma replaced as ANC leader in 2007 in a tumultuous party takeover.
Newspapers splashed the booing incident on their front pages. "Zuma's humiliation," the Star said in its headline. The Johannesburg Times headline read "Rain boo nation", a sarcastic play on the multi-racial "Rainbow Nation" Mandela proclaimed when he became South Africa's first black president in 1994.
Writing in the Daily Maverick, political commentator Stephen Grootes called the Zuma booing experience "some sort of turning point in our public discourse".
"For someone who used to be met with rapturous ululation wherever he went, this is a huge change," he added.
But while in many nations such a crushing public humiliation would probably have led to a resignation, or calls for swift leadership change, the ANC's monolithic dominance of South Africa's political landscape since the end of apartheid in 1994 means such outcomes are not immediately likely.
"The ANC today is not Mandela's ANC. People may be angry with Zuma but the guy is too thick skinned to do anything about it. He will brush it off as another unfortunate incident," a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC), who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Although Zuma's popularity is at an all time low among voters, dented by almost daily accusations of mismanagement and corruption, the party once led by Mandela remains the country's most popular political movement and is still likely to comfortably win the elections due in April or May next year.
Loyalty in the face of adversity still counts for a lot in the former liberation movement. "Zuma is the president of the ANC and the party won't drop him for the election," said another senior party insider who did not want to be named.
"The ANC executive is stacked with Zuma supporters whose political fortunes are tied to him. Dropping him will end their careers too," the source added.
"SIGN OF DEMOCRACY"
Zuma, who under apartheid spent a decade imprisoned at Robben Island penal colony at the same time as Mandela, had been hoping that the wave of adoring emotion triggered by the anti-apartheid legend's death would lift his government's faltering image as it grapples with violent labor unrest and protests over persisting poverty, crime and unemployment.
That hope has backfired, with Tuesday's episode eloquently revealing just how low Zuma's popularity has fallen.
"This is a sign of maturing democracy. When people are unhappy with their leadership it is their democratic right to express that unhappiness and this is what I think happened," said Nhlonipho Dhlomo, one of the thousands who witnessed the booing of Zuma at the packed Soccer City stadium.
To reinforce the verbal message, Zuma's hostile hecklers on Tuesday gave the thumbs down sign or rotated their hands in the sign for a soccer substitution - a clear call for replacement.
ANC spokesmen sought to play down the booing episode, blaming it on unruly individuals not broadly representative.
While the party trumpets a Mandela-inspired campaign message of creating "a better life for all", Zuma's image has been tarnished by repeated allegations that the president has used his political connections to benefit family members and inner circle in business deals. The presidency regularly and routinely rejects such accusations, if it responds at all.
But the scandals are potentially damaging. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the ANC has its power base in millions of South Africa's rural poor who are yet to see the fruits of Mandela's lifelong fight for freedom.
The country's top official corruption watchdog, the Public Protector, is investigating a $21 million publicly funded "security upgrade" to Zuma's private home that included a swimming pool and cattle enclosure. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
WHO WAS BOOING?
Not all the public reaction to the booing of Zuma has been completely critical of him. Citizens talking on Twitter and radio stations have criticized the hecklers for spoiling an important tribute to the "father of the nation", Mandela.
"Whatever people might think of Zuma and his shenanigans - and there are many - we are all obliged to give him respect," the Sowetan newspaper said in an editorial.
Some commentators say the fact the booing incident occurred in Gauteng, South Africa's richest and most populous province, is significant. Gauteng ANC members campaigned against Zuma's re-election at a party leadership conference a year ago, but he won with support from eight of the nation's nine provinces.
"It's important at this point to look at who was actually doing the booing," Grootes wrote.
"This was a long way from the rural poor. And it certainly wasn't the urban white or minority. Rather, it was the middle-class black urban resident," he added, arguing it would never have occurred at an event in Zuma's power base, KwaZulu-Natal or Mandela's home base, the conservative Eastern Cape province.
"We should be careful not to over-read this episode, Zuma has firm control over the ANC, and his power base is in KwaZulu-Natal, not Gauteng," said John Campbell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria who is senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
But Zuma does seem to be having problems getting through to ordinary South Africans.
In a bizarre twist, South Africa's leading deaf association said a fake sign language interpreter was at Zuma's side at the Mandela memorial, gesticulating gibberish and outraging deaf people across the country and the world.
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Stella Mapenzauswa in Johanessburg and Lesley Wroughton in Washington.; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Ralph Boulton)