It had been a long-cherished dream of mine, whenever the day would finally arrive, to make the pilgrimage to Madiba’s memorial. Having been to FNB stadium yesterday, however, I personally don’t think it was a memorial tribute that he himself would have celebrated. Here’s why.
Is there anything as simultaneously mournful and yet uplifting as a South African struggle song? Yesterday, as we huddled in the cold and the wet for the proceedings to begin, the crowds surged forth in unison, their melodies washing over us in wave after wave of glorious emotion. Even though the stadium never breached more than two thirds of its capacity – thousands held back, by the rain and transport chaos – the singing and dancing reverberated throughout, threatening to lift the stadium heavenward. A full brass band and choir had also gathered and were armed with a full speaker system; yet somehow even they couldn’t capture the same level of amplification or raw emotion as the crowd.
The rain bucketed down. With the soaring vocals down below, it seemed for all the world as though God was watching proceedings unfold with tears in His eyes. Heaven’s drawn face seemed to be explained as a sombre tribute to the fallen giant; or, as the master of ceremonies ventured, as symbolising that its gates were being drawn open to let him pass. This symbolism seemed to satisfy us for much of the early part of the day before formal proceedings began. Why, then, did we read a much more ominous message into its continued presence as the day wore on?
Mandela, I feel, would have been touched by the genuine outpouring of love for him which was on display. All came to proclaim fealty to his memory. Andrew Mhlangeni, a close friend and fellow Robben Island inmate, spoke with feeling of how his friend was an inspiration to millions and “who gave us hope when there was none.” A relative, General Thanduxolo Mandela, bade his uncle off with the farewell, “Tata – a son of Africa, a child of the Thembu, a descendent of great kings – you will always be remembered.” In the most glorious praise of all, Barack Obama gave perhaps the greatest memorial tribute any president of the United States has ever given. Likening him to Gandhi as leader of a mass movement of global importance, Martin Luther King Junior for being a hero of the oppressed, Lincoln for single-handedly holding a country together and even Kennedy as a preserver of peace, Obama called him a “giant of history…we will never see the likes [of him] again… when the night grows dark, when injustices weigh heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Madiba.” Recalling his 1964 speech in the dock and well as his understanding of the ties which bind the human spirit, Obama looked within himself to say “I ask myself – as a man and as a president- how well do I apply his lessons in my own life? He makes me want to be a better man.”
Obama’s words – all the speakers’ words – lifted Madiba to the realms of an emperor for all ages. But the poignancy of the day was because all these words seemed to be dwelling on the brief glories of South Africa’s recent past. The words were of our yesterday. No words or exultations were uttered about our tomorrow – because they didn’t need to be. It was plain for all to see at FNB stadium – and it wasn’t promising. Behind the veneer, all there was to show was ill-discipline and the complete unworthiness of Madiba’s political heirs to continue the country on the journey which he had started. Were he to be looking from on high, I think this realisation would have saddened him no end.
It was in 1993, just before Mandela became president, that our country last witnessed as restless and unruly a crowd as we did yesterday. It was just after the assassination of Chris Hani, in the days where the country seemed to be headed to civil war – and ANC youths had begun very publicly to question the suitability of their leader’s approach. They wanted an eye for an eye as retaliation for Hani. Securing the peace could wait. Faced with such a restive crowd, others would have balked. Mandela drew himself up to his full height and sharply cut them down to size. “If you have no discipline, you are not freedom fighters and we do not want you in our organisation,” he said angrily. “I am your leader. If you don’t want me, tell me to go and rest. [But] as long as I am your leader I will tell you where you are wrong.” The storm was stopped in its tracks.
That was 1993, and that was Mandela. Fast-forward twenty years, and at the FNB stadium his heirs were very publicly humbled in their ability to assert their moral authority in the face of ill-discipline. Cyril Ramaphosa tried, telling the crowd in Zulu, “Be quiet – we have visitors here. If you want to say something to us, say it later.” He failed in his attempt.
Of course it wasn’t his fault. For as the day wore on, and the skies remained grey, the crowd’s contempt for the hypocrisy of Jacob Zuma and his administration knew no bounds. Every time his face appeared on screen, it was met with booing. When a faltering Andrew Mhlangeni forgot the president’s name, they sneered at Zuma’s humiliation. And when it was his turn to speak, in a hastily cut speech to try to stem the fallout, the booing continued.
It was a reminder that as a country today, we have precious little to look forward to. The words of the memorial were great, and heart-warming – but they were essentially backward-looking. Our glory days appear to have passed, and everyone there, foreigners and locals alike, was aware of it. At the end of proceedings, Archbishop Tutu tried desperately to salvage the situation by demanding from the crowd to make a pledge before God to maintain Mandela’s example. He tried his best, but the crowd seemed to know the game was up.
I seriously hope Tutu’s pledge will prevail, but little of what I saw yesterday filled me with confidence. So as much as Obama closed off his speech by invoking the inspiring words of the poem Invictus, the opposite may well hold true for our beloved country, unless Mandela’s heirs prove more worthy in the days ahead:
Not a thousand and one nights
but the thousand and one fears,
Each one as full
as a night.
A single entity, a country in embryo
hurtling down the road,
Moniza Alvi, At the time of Partition (2013) DM
Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab
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