I didn’t go to the official Mandela memorial service yesterday. I watched it on TV. I thought about going, but it was raining, and I had neither umbrella nor raincoat.
Many people said (on Twitter) that they were embarrassed by the booing of Jacob Zuma, but for me that was one of the few redeeming features of the event.
We organised a rugby world cup in 1995, and Nelson Mandela attended the final at the FNB stadium, and we won. The following year we organised the the soccer African Cup of Nations at the FNB stadium, with twice as many teams, and we won. We organised the cricket world cup, and we organised the soccer world cup in 2010, and the organisers did us proud.
But the memorial service for South Africa’s greatest president was chaotic, amateurish and embarrassing. I watched it on eNCA news, and the broadcast was incompetent and disrespectful, with speakers being interrupted to show the presenters (Nikiwe Bikitsha and Jeremy Maggs) chatting to each other or to other random people. Sometimes they were telling us what was happening instead of showing us.
It didn’t start off too badly, though it did start an hour late. I didn’t notice that at the time, but I did notice that even though it started an hour late, US President Barack Obama arrived later still. That seems to be an American habit, because the start of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration was delayed by ten minutes because US Vice-President Al Gore was late. We make jokes about “African time”, but African-American time seems to be something else.
It was noticable that some people in the crowd booed and made the soccer substitution sign when President Jacob Zuma appeared, but former president Thabo Mbeki got much louder cheers. I’ve seen the booing and the substitution sign (rolling hands) at soccer matches when there is an unpopular player, or someone makes a stupid mistake, and probably quite a large part of the crowd were soccer fans, and were used to doing that kind of thing at that venue.
Was it an appropriate occasion?
Well after the Soweto massacre in 1976 funerals of political activists were also political demonstrations, and that became part of the culture of funerals in many parts of South Africa, In his first speech after his release from prison Nelson Mandela paid tribute to the efforts of the people, which had gone him released, and the political demonstrations at funerals were part of those efforts, so I think those who are complaining that it was “inappropriate” are forgetting our own recent history.
Another point is that the recent debacle over toll roads has shown, especially to the people of Gauteng, that the ANC leadership is not prepared to listen to the people, and forced e-tolls on Gauteng in the very week that Nelson Mandela died. The ANC provincial and national leadership was gathered as a captive audience, and such an opportunity might never arise again. It was simply too good to be missed.
Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that it was organised and orchestrated in advance. Perhaps it was a flashmob, gathered by tweets and SMS messages. If so, it would appear to have been better organised than the memorial service itself. But I think there is a simpler explanation. It was a soccer stadium, and people were used to going to it to watch football matches. Soccer fans knew what to do without having to be told.
The memorial service opened with prayers and tributes by Jewish, Hindu and Muslim clergy. So far so good.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma spoke, and could hardly be heard, even on TV, because the crowd were walking in and out, singing and dancing, or talking or tweeting on cell phones. The editor of City Press tweeted that it was a long walk to a woman president, if that was how much attention was being paid. Someone tweeted that a sound engineer would be fired. The eNCA cameras showed the speaker, but not the deaf interpreter, which was another piece of incompetence. But it seems that the incompetence was worse than I thought, because even though the deaf interpreter was there, he was so incompetent that no deaf people could understand him. The one redeeming feature was that the broadcasters managed to get the lip sync right, which DStv hardly ever manages to do.
By the time US president Barack Obama got up to speak (after he eventually arrived) many in the crowd were already leaving, and the singing and dancing continued for a while until people realised that he actually had something to say. That was perhaps where watching on TV was better. I knew from his first election campaign that he was a good orator, but a year into his second term I was also aware that many of the things he promised so earnestly have not come to pass. He spoke of the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, and I was acutely aware of his unfulfilled promise to close Guantanamo Bay.
As he continued speaking, the crowd began to quieten down, and fewer people moved to the exits. Whatever the gap between words and reality, the spoken words themselves wove a spell. He was followed by the Vice President of China, the President of Brazil, and of India. All of the BRICS were there. No, not quite. There was no sign of anyone from Russia, no one at all.
The crowd seemed to listen more attentively to the President of Brazil, even though she spoke Portuguese and it was interpreted. Perhaps it might not be such a long walk to a woman president after all. Perhaps we just need the right woman. I thought of Mamphela Ramphele, but we’ll be lucky just to get her into parliament, where she can perhaps be heard.
The move to the exits resumed. It looked as though the home team was losing, and so it was, as things went steadily downhill.
President Zuma spoke. The content of his speech was not bad, but his delivery, especially after Barack Obama, was atrocious. He barely looked at his audience, and read his speech painfully slowly. And even when he did look up there was no eye-contact, as there had been with Barack Obama, because he wore dark glasses which made him look like a Mafia gangster.
Then came a Bible reading, about Elijah going to heaven and leaving his mantle to Elisha, but Jacob Zuma made an unconvincing Elisha, and the delivery was as bad as Zuma’s, so the reading flopped too.
And then a bloke started to sing a Xhosa hymn, Lisalis’ idinga lakho. I recall it from my Anglican days as the only singable hymn in the Xhosa hymn book. All the others were translated from English, and in every single one the rhythm of the words classhed with the rhythm of the music, syncopation on steroids. Lisalis’ idinga lakho was written by a Xhosa speaker, and so the words and music fitted. Perhaps for that reason it was Nelson Mandela’s favourite hymn. But why, O why, could the organisers of the event not muster up a decent choir to lead the singing of it? It is a well-known hymn, and most of the people in the stadium would have joined in and it could have sounded magnificent, like a Welsh rugby match, perhaps, and not like a faded away old soldier’s funeral in a funeral parlour chapel with five old soldiers, and one of them playing the last post on a cell phone.
And then followed the sermon by
Nikwe Bikisha and Jeremy Maggs Ivan Abrahams, which I didn’t hear, though those who did tell me I didn’t miss much.
Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu gave the final blessing, which was at least a little better. It really needed someone who knew a little about liturgy.
Some have said that the booing of Zuma spoiled the event, but nothing spoiled it as much as the bad organisation and dull speeches. As for the booing, I think the best comment is here It’s our party and we’ll boo if we want to | Daily Maverick
I’m glad I’m Orthodox, and I hope my funeral will be a little bit better than that. It really was embarrassingly badly organised, especially after we had successfully organised world cup matches in cricket, rugby and soccer.
We did have a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in church on Sunday, and that was much better too