“Your grief is our grief”: Africa says goodbye to its favourite son

By Simon Allison 15 December 2013

There was always danger that the speeches at Nelson Mandela’s funeral would degenerate into wooden platitudes, especially those from the African leaders chosen to satisfy diplomatic protocol. This time, unlike at Tuesday’s memorial, the protocol threw up some warm, moving tributes that did justice to the great man’s contributions to the continent – and reminded South Africans what the continent contributed to us. By SIMON ALLISON.

Ticking off diplomatic checklists is never a good way to plan a funeral. On Tuesday, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, we all saw what happens when protocol trumps passion: besides Obama, who has the advantage of a fantastic speechwriting team and is anyway one of the world’s finest orators, the representatives of Brazil, China, Cuba, India and Namibia delivered a procession of platitudes which sent the crowds scurrying out of the FNB stadium well before time. The words may have been right, but where was the warmth, sincerity and humour that Madiba’s legacy deserves (qualities in abundance at Wednesday’s memorial in Cape Town, and others around the country, which were filled with people who really knew and loved him)?

We could all be forgiven, then, for our groans of disappointment when we saw the international line-up for the funeral in Qunu, which left us praying for another fake interpreter just to liven the proceedings a little. African Union representative, tick; SADC representative, tick; ANC partner, tick. The omens weren’t good.

As it turned out, our pessimism was misplaced.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, got the ball rolling with a passionate tribute on behalf of the continent. “Madiba’s life was the mirror image of the continent for whose liberty he so relentless fought…If we fight injustice tooth and nail, if we persevere in the face of difficulty, we can ultimately prevail against the evil, no matter what the odds stacked against us.”

That ‘evil’, in case you were wondering, was the ‘ruthless coloniser’ which once trampled over so much of Africa. In the audience, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, must have winced – his mother, after all, was the queen of the ruthless colonisers.

Desalegn’s was an eloquent, sincere speech, but would soon be wholly upstaged by that of Malawi’s president Joyce Banda, who is also serving as SADC chairperson. Clearly nervous, she took a while to get into her stride, but once she did she held the audience spellbound with her unexpectedly honest description of how Mandela’s lessons have directly influenced her own presidency.

Banda came to power in controversial circumstances after the death in office of Bingu wa Mutharika. Although she was vice-president at the time, she’d been expelled from the ruling party and snubbed by the political elite after falling out with Mutharika.

When I became president of Malawi, I had been isolated, humiliated and there was an assassination attempt on my life. I found myself in a situation where I had to work with those same people who had prevented me from becoming president of my country. I had to forgive and do so without any effort because my Madiba had prepared me.”

Banda also delivered one of the best soundbites of the morning: “Leadership is about falling in love with the people you serve, and them falling in love with you,” a sentiment of which Madiba would doubtless have approved.

I appeal to you, President Zuma, and to all South Africans…to remain a rainbow nation,” she concluded.

Banda’s appeal to Zuma may have been a little pointed – after all, it was only three months ago that Zuma managed to offend the entire nation of Malawi and precipitate a diplomatic crisis by describing Johannesburg’s shiny new e-tolled highways as “not some national road in Malawi”, a slur which Banda was polite enough not to mention on Sunday.

Cyril Ramaphosa, however, wasn’t above poking a little fun at Msholozi’s expense, explaining that the ANC had forbidden Zuma to mention the word ‘Malawi’ in public again after the incident. “Banda has freed everyone to say Malawi again with the greatest of ease,” he said, to laughter (although the reference and general hilarity at every mention of Malawi thereafter must have baffled foreign viewers).

Ramaphosa then got serious as he introduced the next African speaker, President Jakaya Kikwete. Whereas Desalegn and Banda’s introductions were perfunctory, Ramaphosa was effusive about Kikwete’s Tanzania: “Our movement had a home in Tanzania during the tough and dark days of our struggle,” he said. “[Former] President [Julius] Nyerere was the leading African leader who championed African liberation. Tanzania and others sacrificed a great deal…they paused their own development to help the liberation of others. Tanzania stands among those countries we hold in highest regard.”

Kikwete, age 63, was too young to be part of Tanzania’s own independence movement, but he knows all the stories, and was at pains to explain the important role his country played during the anti-apartheid struggle. This, of course, is common knowledge amongst the assembled ANC veterans in the audience, many of whom were trained in Tanzanian camps or travelled on Tanzanian passports. “I don’t know if Thabo returned his,” joked Kikwete, as Thabo Mbeki grinned sheepishly (that’s a no, we think). Even Mandela, for a time, was a Tanzanian citizen – he used a Tanzanian passport on his very first trip around Africa as he lobbied support for Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Kikwete also told a lovely anecdote about how Mandela, traveling in secret and unable to book into a hotel, had stayed instead in the spare room of a senior Tanzanian government official in Dar es Salaam. When he departed, he left his boots behind, planning to collect them on the way home. This was 1962. Circumstances intervened, however, and Mandela never returned. But the government official held on to the boots, and they were eventually presented to Mandela in 1995 by his widow, who was also touchingly in attendance at the funeral yesterday.

Kikwete’s speech, dwelling as it did on his own country’s record, was a little self-indulgent, but it also served as a powerful reminder of the debt that all South Africans owe to the rest of the continent; a debt that is often neglected or forgotten (a typical example of our general ignorance on the subject of Africa: earlier in the day, an SABC newsreader repeatedly mispronounced Kikwete’s first name as “Jakawa”, clearly never having heard it before).

Your grief is our grief. Your loss is our loss. Nelson Mandela was our leader, our icon, our father, as much as he was yours,” said Kikwete.

That should have been all from African leaders, except for an unscheduled intervention. The last word, as unexpected as it was warmly welcomed by the audience, went to Zambia’s former President Kenneth Kaunda, who was not listed on the official program. “We could not say no to him,” said Ramaphosa.

Kaunda is an integral part of ANC and South African history. Like Nyerere’s Tanzania, Kaunda’s Zambia was a home away from home for comrades in exile and those in training to join the armed struggle, and Kaunda himself was actively involved in promoting the anti-apartheid movement.

Only six years Mandela’s junior, Kaunda is an old man now and not bothered by political correctness or practical obligations. He kept referring to Afrikaners as “boers”, and shrugged off Ramaphosa’s increasingly desperate entreaties to keep it short. “This young man is controlling an old man who fought boers!” he exclaimed.

The audience, however, didn’t mind, even when Kaunda heaped praise on “boer leader” FW de Klerk and gave a speech that was more sermon than eulogy. They loved him, as one loves a favourite grandfather and his rambling stories, and they especially loved his parting line: “He’s no more in terms of this life, but he’s still Mandela our leader, sent by God to teach us how to fight racism.”

And with that, Africa said goodbye to its favourite son, in the way that only Africa can. DM

Photo: Former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda speaks during the funeral ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu December 15, 2013. (REUTERS/Odd Andersen/Pool)


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