Opinionista Alex Eliseev 11 December 2013

Wanted: A time machine. Mission: Re-do Nelson Mandela memorial

I wish there really was a magical time machine we could all jump into and start Nelson Mandela’s memorial service afresh. He deserved so much more than what we gave him. He deserved a day that would stand out in history forever. Not petty politics and embarrassing calls for discipline. And the most annoying thing is that South Africa really can do so much better.

(Disclaimer: This column is written after 18 hours of continuous reporting. The thoughts may be a little frayed and the emotions a touch high. But you know what they say about striking those hot irons…)

The day began so full of promise. A blanket of thick grey clouds hung over the Calabash, delivering a soft shower of blessings from the ancestors. The crowd began to stream in and struggle songs thundered through the stadium. It was a pleasure to report on how quickly the first sparks of electricity filled the air. This was going to be a historic day to mark the life of a man who, as one handwritten card outside Madiba’s Houghton home put it, “changed the world”.

An unprecedented number of world leaders had confirmed their attendance, some countries sending as many as four presidents. The memorial service would be watched by the entire globe. It was our moment to shine. Our moment to showcase South Africa without Fifa.

Speaking of Fifa, I happened to be at the opening match of the 2010 soccer World Cup and know full well the kind of amazing energy that can boil up inside the Calabash. It’s an experience like no other, a one that fills and feeds the soul.

A memorial service is, of course, very different to a football match or a music concert. It’s not supposed to have glamorous opening ceremonies or fireworks. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this memorial service was more about celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela than it was about grief and sorrow. It was a moment to look back, look into our own hearts and then look ahead to tomorrow. It was, as U2’s Bono told me, the search for the rainbow at the end of the storm.

They say airplanes crash when there’s a perfect culmination of glitches or problems: the captain is tired, the lights on the runway aren’t working, the weather is bad, there’s miscommunication with the air control tower, an engine fails, etc. The same can be said about the yesterday’s memorial service.

The trains and buses got stuck or delayed, and the spacious FNB stadium was less than half-full with minutes before the programme was due to start. The result was that the service ran late and images of an empty stadium did the rounds.

The sound system was battling until well into the event. People in the stands struggled to hear the speakers and lost interest. The most beautiful words and memories, like those of Madiba’s friend Andrew Mlangeni or Mandela’s grandchildren, were lost.

I won’t go into too much detail about the booing, save to say it caught many by surprise and lowered the tone of the entire gathering. In fact, it yanked the tone right down to the floor and dragged it around the wet ground like a mop. As the cameras panned across certain politicians, the crowd either cheered or booed. Eventually, the big screens were switched off, replaced with a static photograph of Mandela. This in itself caused tempers to rise, with people chanting “screen!”

Throughout the prayers, groups in the stands sang their own songs. When some of the early speeches were delivered, the crowd drowned out the words. It got so bad that ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa had to play teacher and called for discipline, after interrupting the Indian president’s speech. He told the crowd they were embarrassing the country in front of a global audience. Which they were.

Like thousands of vampires, the politics sucked the magic out of the event. We don’t know whether it was spontaneous or orchestrated. I have my opinion, but it’s irrelevant here. What is relevant is that there was a limited supply of magic to begin with. The speakers may have been diplomatically correct, but they were not the people I would have chosen.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was not meant to speak at all, but landed up being one of the highlights (having given the audience a piece of his mind about their behaviour). He spoke from the heart. As did US president Barack Obama.

The others, including Zuma, did not.

Some say it’s unfair to compare Obama and Zuma but they shared a stage and can most definitely be compared. Zuma also had the home advantage (although the booing would have unnerved him).

Obama spoke himself into the history books, glancing down at his notes but speaking confidently and from a place of deep love and admiration for the man who ignited his political career. Zuma read from a script, holding it with both hands. There was a dramatic contrast between the two men.

To add insult to injury, a large portion of the crowd had left straight after Obama’s speech and before the keynote address from Zuma. By the time the sermon and the vote of thanks came, there was hardly anyone left in the stands.

The entire event lacked something. Something that would have given it more of an African feel. Something that taps into the soul of South Africa and the continent. Maybe more poetry. More song. More romance. Something to say that this is not a random meeting of the United Nations or a regular Brics summit. And if you think I’m being unfair, try to remember one thing that the president of Namibia said. And while you’re at it, see if you can remember his name.

The point I’m making is that we missed a big opportunity. We dropped the ball. I, like many others, left the service feeling disappointed and deflated.

Mandela was – as we all know – about uniting people. But the booing that happened was the symptom of deep political divisions which should have been put aside for a few hours.

We can bank the debate about Zuma’s leadership and whether he has a right to preach Nelson Mandela’s values for another day. My opinion on this is well documented on this website. But the memorial service of one of the greatest human beings to have walked the earth is not the place, nor the time.

Why this stings so much is because of the way South Africa has dealt with Mandela’s death since last week. It has been dignified, respectful and emotional. I spent a few hours in Houghton and saw the very best our own humanity has to offer. The image of a young white man photographed in an embrace with an elderly black woman has stuck in my memory as a symbol of Madiba. Speaking to young children has melted some of the ice around my heart. The Madiba miracle has been so easy to see in any direction you look. There has been so much deep and much-needed introspection.

And then we stumble at such a crucial moment.

Time travel remains locked in science fiction books so we cannot undo what’s been done to the memory of Mandela and to our collective soul this rainy Tuesday in December. But we will keep walking. It may not be cared for by our politicians anymore, but Madiba magic will remain in our hearts, minds and homes. DM

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