The heavens opened up and rained down upon the crowd that had gathered at the FNB Stadium, South African President Jacob Zuma was booed by some in the crowd, American President Barack Obama delivered a memorable address (and SA President Jacob Zuma a pedestrian one) in memory of Nelson Mandela, and the day-long send-off marked the end of what we will now call the Mandela Era. But the most remarked upon event in the day may well have been a short handshake between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the day from the diplomatic angle.
It was almost certainly one of the largest single diplomatic gatherings ever, with nearly a hundred heads of government and state or senior representatives of their respective nations, all in South Africa to pay their final respects to Nelson Mandela’s memory. Prior to the ceremony, Clayson Monyela, South Africa’s foreign affairs spokesman had tweeted, “We’re now on 91 Heads of State & Gov confirmed plus 10 former Heads of State. 86 Heads of Delegations & 75 Eminent Persons.”
The whole long day was co-chaired by ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC National Chair Baleka Mbete, and the ceremonies included opening benedictions from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clerics, remarks by one of the three remaining Rivonia Trial defendants, Andrew Mlangeni, and words from a whole clutch of Mandela grandchildren.
Then there were addresses by leaders from the US, Brazil, China, India, Cuba and Namibia, the UN Secretary General and the head of the AU Commission, various musical interludes by local and foreign performers, a keynote speech by South African President Jacob Zuma, yet another benediction and then – right at the end – the short miracle of a final prayer by the country’s resident conscience, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And then it was over.
Throughout, it rained, and rained, and rained.
Right from the beginning of the day, a key question was how this vast array of VIPs would be managed – would the Chinese and Japanese representatives come to blows in an angry scene mimicking their face-off over some rocky dots in the East China Sea; would an Israeli representative and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas mix it up, right in front the whole world; or would Barack Obama end up in a confrontation with Raul Castro, and on and on. But nothing of the kind happened. Nada. Instead, when Barack Obama entered the bullet-proof glass enclosure that had been constructed for the world leaders, after the ceremonies had already begun, instead of brushing past Raul Castro, he paused and the two men exchanged pleasantries and shook hands. That got tongues wagging throughout the world’s media. The Washington Post noted the last such occurrence happened over thirteen years ago. “In September 2000, then-President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at the United Nations in what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called a ‘chance encounter.’ It was believed to be the first time Castro had shaken hands with a sitting US president.”
Did this brief encounter signify a shift in the long-time standoff between the US and Cuba? The island nation has been the subject of a US trade embargo for a half century (along with some other bad blood), as well as other restrictions on bi-national contact, although the Obama administration has, in recent years, allowed some loosening of these strictures in cultural activities, family travel and a limited range of financial transfers. But based on this brief moment of civility before the entire world’s media, live on television, some are already speculating 2014 will be the year that sees a new effort to lower the barriers and suspicions that have separated two nations just ninety miles apart.
It should be remembered, however, that on the US side, significant pressure to keep relations frozen continues to come from portions of the Cuban-American immigrant community, an ethnic bloc that remains politically potent in the swing state of Florida, especially via several Republican congressmen and women – even should the Obama administration decide to proceed down that road of better ties. Nevertheless, if this does occur, we may well be able to say it was the late Nelson Mandela’s last legacy. For “the great reconciler”, that could be a notable final achievement.
As far as the formal remarks by the foreign dignitaries, for the most part they seemed eminently forgettable, save for Barack Obama’s – and perhaps Raul Castro’s. In his remarks, for example, Castro had said, “Let us pay tribute to Nelson Mandela: The ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle, to freedom and justice, a prophet of unity, peace and reconciliation. As Mandela’s life teaches us, only the concerted effort of all nations will empower humanity to respond to the enormous challenges that today threatens its very existence.”
The others all seemed to have had an almost perfunctory quality about them, repeating the same clichés about Mandela’s role as a reconciler and peacemaker – and of a man who had expanded the sphere of freedom. All true, but all said regularly already. For a moment, during all these remarks, the writer lost focus for a second and could have sworn we were watching the film Miss Congeniality; you know, the part where the competing beauty queens practice delivering their wish for world peace.
Barack Obama’s speech, on the other hand, seemed to fit the moment like a bespoke suit as he wove together some of his favourite tropes – that Martin Luther King arc of justice, the appeals to Abraham Lincoln, the impact of Nelson Mandela on his own emerging political consciousness, and the need for broad economic justice. And he even found a way to weave in some of the words of Mandela’s favourite bit of verse, William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”.
Observers noted the stadium kept filling up until Obama rose to speak, he drew loud applause and their full attention, and then the stadium began to empty after he finished. (Well, okay, it was raining and the crowd had been there for hours, soaked, cold and hungry; but they clearly had been waiting for this moment and this speaker. Once that moment was done, that was that. Time to go.)
In his speech, Obama had told the crowd, “Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet….”
“And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his. Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough. No matter how right, they must be chiselled into law and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history….”
Then turning more thoroughly personal, Obama went on to say, “He changed laws, but he also changed hearts…. Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President. We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. … Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done…. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes.” Not too shabby, that one.
Looking at the rest of the international speakers’ list, Namibia was the only African state given a slot. Perhaps it was the best compromise candidate, rather than in going anywhere else, given the fact that the alternatives might well have been problematic ones like Zimbabwe, Zambia or Nigeria instead. Namibia’s historical ties to South Africa’s own liberation struggle probably made it the inevitable choice in the end. Cuba was similarly a logical selection, given the long-time ties between Cuba and South Africa’s liberation movements – and the on-going connections between the two nations on everything from medical training to ballet exchanges.
What was particularly curious, however, was the absence of Russia. Given South Africa’s persistent drumbeat on behalf of the BRICS group, and the new centrality of that group for South Africa’s foreign policy, it seemed almost eerie that while Brazil and India’s presidents were joined by China’s vice president in giving remarks, there was nobody there from Russia. That’s Russia we’re talking about here – the same place so many of South Africa’s revolutionary cadres had gone to for their educations and military and ideological training, back in the day – when it was still the Soviet Union, of course. Nowadays, despite BRICS, Russian trade with South Africa remains small, and the Russians seem to have relatively little interest in growing their ties with Africa these days. Then there is that explosive situation on their near abroad doorstep in the Ukraine. Perhaps that has captured their all of their attention, leaving nothing left over for a state funeral, a long way away. Well, who knows.
By the time South African President Jacob Zuma had risen to speak (and after he had been booed several times by members of the crowd), the audience was already beginning to move to the exits of the stadium for their long trip back home. The short version is that Zuma’s speech, while it was more him than most of his other, previous, big public moments, he seemed curiously unable to connect to or find the majesty, music and magic of Mandela’s own life story.
Instead, Zuma’s speech was – yet again – a rather tedious recitation of those stirring historical events and milestones along that long walk to freedom and the achievements of the non-racial government since the 1990s, rather than an effort to appreciate Mandela’s mastery of principle and politics. Sadly, President Zuma – speaking to what was almost certainly the largest global audience he will ever speak to – swung – and missed. He may never have such a chance again to make the case on the world stage as a legitimate heir to Mandela’s legacy. DM
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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuban President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank soccer stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. Obama shook the hand of Castro at a memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a rare gesture between the leaders of two nations at loggerheads for more than half a century. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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