For the last eleven weeks of his life, Madiba and his family were soaked in prayer by people at home and abroad. My text messages reflected a deepening pastoral relationship with those around him who watched and waited. In the last days of his life, I received one which shook me to my core. I no longer have the text, but as best I can remember it read: “Archbishop, hold my hand. I am weak.”
I read it several times and went downstairs to my chapel at Bishopscourt. I lay prostrate on the floor, feeling hot and cold. I cried, I mourned, and I wrestled with God. Lungi has an amazing ability to know when I am struggling with something, and followed me down. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Yes, I’m okay, I’m just having a God moment.”
Bishopscourt, with its thick, centuries-old walls, is cold even in summer, and Lungi told me, “Let’s go up.” We went back upstairs and I skirted around what was wrong, just saying, “It’s about Madiba.”
On the night of Thursday, 5 December, I received a message from Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana. He was one of the clergy with whom Graça had asked me, in June, to keep in touch. Malusi and Madiba were very close friends, she said, and Madiba loved him. An activist alongside Steve Biko in his early life, Malusi was well known to Anglicans, his church – the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – having been for many decades closely associated with us as an “order” of our church.
Malusi was at the home in Houghton, where he had been spending a good deal of time praying, and he was calling to say that Graça had asked him to tell me that Madiba had died.
I set about composing a new prayer. Once again, I turned to our Anglican Prayer Book and began by adapting the prayer for someone at the point of death. President Zuma went on television later that night, and I have to say that despite all the scandal that already surrounded him and continued later to surround him, his handling of the announcement was impeccable: he was pastoral, he was direct, he was loving and he ended with a message of great consolation.
Once he had made his announcement, I released my prayer:
Go forth, revolutionary and loving soul, on your journey out of this world, In the name of God, who created you, suffered with you and liberated you.
Go home, Madiba, you have selflessly done all that is good, noble and honourable for God’s people.
We will continue where you have left off, the Lord being our helper.
We now turn to you, Lord, in this hour of darkness, sadness, pain
and death, in tears and mourning,
We wail, yet we believe that you will console us, that you will give
us the strength to hold in our hearts and minds, and the courage
to enact in our lives, the values Madiba fought and stood for.
We turn to you, Lord, and entrust Madiba’s soul to your eternal
rest and loving arms as he rejoins the Madiba clan, his comrades
and all the faithful departed.
We pray particularly for his closest and dearest, for Me Graça
Machel, for his children, grandchildren and all his relatives; may
you surround them with your loving arms, your fatherly embrace
At this dark time of mourning, at this perfect time when you have
called him to rest and a perfect end, accept his soul and number
him among the company of the redeemed in Heaven.
Console and comfort his family, South Africa and the world.
May his long walk to freedom be enjoyed and realised in our time
by all of us.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen
Abandoning my schedule, I joined Archbishop Tutu at his regular Friday morning service at St George’s Cathedral in the morning, then flew to Johannesburg to join Graça and the family in Houghton. There I found the Reverend Vukile Mehana, the ANC chaplain-general, leading prayers and songs with President Zuma, members of his Cabinet and the ANC leadership. Invited to say a few words, I declined to speak after the president but read the prayer. Usually my public speaking voice is relatively clear but on this occasion I struggled, trembling with emotion.
Afterwards, with the party leadership gone, Lungi and I stayed on and reminisced with Graça about our journey of the past few years. As had become the custom, I also promised to send her a copy of the prayer.
Then began a week of constant activity as Lungi and I attended evening prayers at the Mandelas’ home in Houghton and shuttled between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, East London and Qunu for the ceremonies leading up to Madiba’s funeral and interment.
It was also a week of tension, which began when, at evening prayers, I was cornered by Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy-president of the ANC, and Baleka Mbete, the party’s national chairperson. They had been appointed by President Zuma to preside at the national memorial service at Soccer City – the stadium that had hosted the biggest matches of football’s 2010 World Cup – on the Tuesday after Madiba’s death.
Apart from tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans, the service was due to be attended by scores of heads of state, ex-heads of state, European royalty, rock stars, business moguls and others among the world’s rich and powerful. Accompanied by Malusi, Cyril and Baleka told me that I had been chosen to say the Christian prayer at the service. I questioned whether I was the right choice. Surely, I asked, it should be the president of the SACC – who at the time was Jo Seoka – or Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, the presiding bishop of Madiba’s church, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa?
No, I was told, the Methodists were already preaching at both the memorial service and the funeral. (Bishop Ivan Abrahams, the general secretary of the World Methodist Council and a South African, preached at the memorial service and Bishop Siwa at the funeral.)
Afterwards, unhappy that Luthuli House – the ANC headquarters – was selecting who would pray, I asked Malusi what was going on. He told me that Mrs Machel had asked that I say the prayer at the stadium. Well, I thought, if that was the case, surely she would have asked me herself. When we buried Ma Sisulu, an Anglican, we had followed the protocol laid down by our Anglican Prayer Book, to the extent that we refused to allow the president to speak last, which state protocol would have dictated. I couldn’t understand why Luthuli House would dictate Methodist protocol. But I relented, remarking to Lungi that it was all very strange.
Little did I realise what later appeared to have been going on behind the scenes. From the outset, there were difficulties over access to the various ceremonies. In Houghton, I was told that Lungi and I had to collect our accreditation at Luthuli House in the Johannesburg city centre. But people were being accredited right there at the house, so I refused to go to town and we joined that queue. When we reached the front of the line, I was told, no, the clergy had to be accredited at Wits. I stood my ground and we eventually received our accreditation.
As events unfolded over the ensuing week, I learnt that we weren’t the only people who struggled to be accredited. All week all manner of people, including foreign guests, were pushed from pillar to post, travelling from one venue to another to secure accreditation. Some prominent friends of Madiba never received it.
On the Sunday after Madiba died, I was scheduled to make my first visit to one of Cape Town’s most important parishes in a black residential area, Holy Cross Church in Nyanga. So I returned from Johannesburg and it was in Nyanga that I had my opportunity to pay tribute to Madiba and to reflect on his life. From there it was back to Johannesburg for the memorial service at Soccer City, where Madiba was last seen in public as he greeted the spectators at the final of the World Cup.
I joined other faith leaders – Jewish, Hindu and Muslim – in opening the service with prayer. I completed my contribution with the words I had used the previous week, urging Madiba to “Go forth, revolutionary and loving soul, on your journey out of this world . . .” A line-up of other speakers followed, including members of the Mandela family and world leaders. Among these were the presidents of Brazil, Cuba, India, Namibia and the United States and the vice-president of China. Barack Obama was given a rapturous reception and his eulogy was really moving. Both he and Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, attracted more applause than President Zuma, whose image on the stadium screens was repeatedly booed until those controlling the broadcast were instructed to stop showing him.
It was very sad; it would have been disappointing for Madiba, who would have found the behaviour undisciplined and undignified. I was moved by how solicitous Bongekile Ngema-Zuma, the president’s fourth wife and a member of the Anglican Women’s Fellowship, was for us religious leaders. It was pouring with rain, and when I began to get wet she anxiously tried to keep me protected from the downpour.
Over the ensuing days, Lungi and I kept in touch with Me Graça by phone and text message, and visited and prayed with her for strength on the day we all went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to view Madiba as he lay in state. Following Thabo and Zanele Mbeki past the soldiers and sailors standing alongside his coffin, Lungi and I paused at Madiba’s side as I prayed: “May your soul rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Madiba’s body was to be flown to the Eastern Cape on Saturday for the funeral in Qunu on Sunday, and I was asked to stay on in Johannesburg to accompany the chaplains in a military aircraft. Dating back to the days of apartheid, I have an unease about the military and as a church leader I prefer to keep a distance from them and their weapons as a matter of conscience. So I declined the request on the grounds that I needed to get back to Cape Town to fetch changes of clothing and to gather my church vestments for the funeral.
I arrived in Qunu on Friday, in time to be asked by Lindiwe Sisulu to say prayers at a low-key service held in a marquee outside Madiba’s home for the handful of people already there preparing for the next two days. Tensions between government, party and family around who was to go where and who was to do what were apparent, and one of those at the service told me: “Bishop, don’t ask how we are. We will do the funeral and then come back to you so you can pray for our healing.” The next morning I was asked to be at the Mthatha airport in the party meeting the military aircraft carrying Madiba’s body.
A few smaller planes arrived ahead of it, and Graça, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other members of the family joined us. Then the Hercules C-130 transport aircraft arrived, accompanied by two fighter jets. Despite my opposition to shows of military might, I still shiver as I recall the strength of my emotions – and the sense that this was right – as a guard of honour in ceremonial dress lined up, a military band struck up a solemn rendition of the national anthem and the flag-draped coffin was loaded into a hearse. Motorcycle outriders then led the cortège through the streets of Mthatha, lined with people waving and crying, and to Qunu. DM
This is an extract taken from Faith & Courage by Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, published by Tafelberg. Recommended retail price R280.
In other news...
The South African economy is choking harder than the Proteas. Although to be choking you have to actually be eating and the Proteas seem to be on some sort of juice cleanse-like fast…*
Back to the economy: In the first quarter the GDP dive-bombed by a whopping 3.2%. The sense of futility can paralyse us into inaction and moaning. But it’s times like these that call for effort and action, no matter how small. Yes, South Africa is hurting. Yes the ravaged economy is evident everywhere you look. But you can make a difference, in your own personal way and by supporting independent media like Daily Maverick. We’ve pledged to continue the fight through producing incisive and impactful investigations and analysis, the same way we have done every day for the last decade.
By becoming a Maverick Insider you can help us keep doing what we do, so that you and others who can’t afford it, can keep reading the truth. For whatever amount you choose, you can support DM and it only takes a minute.
*Proteas, you know we love you. We’d just love you more if you won occasionally...
The originator of the Big Bang Theory was a Catholic priest.