Nelson Mandela memorial: Cheers, jeers and a masterclass from Barack Obama that stole the show

It was meant to be a celebration of one man’s life; instead the heavens opened, the stadium was a third empty, and the tens of thousands of rain-sodden South Africans drowned out the A-list speakers with a chorus of disapproval

Soweto

The heads of state were there, all 91 of them, as were dozens of other international “eminent people” including rock stars, supermodels and South Africa’s political elite, all gathered together for a memorial service for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela that had been described as the biggest farewell to a statesman in recent times.

But the best laid plans, even for such an august occasion, do not always entirely work out. That was indeed the case at the Soweto stadium; one-third of the expected capacity crowd did not turn up, and those who did resoundingly and repeatedly booed South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, delaying the address that was meant to be the key part of the memorial service.

They cheered to the rafters, however, what emerged as the real keynote speech, that by US President Barack Obama, whose words outclassed every other, even managing to rise above the muffled sound system.

The other winner of the day was the crowd itself which refused to be cowed by the podium into “keeping discipline” and desisting from jeering. While keeping up the pressure on Mr Zuma, they cheered the predecessor he deposed, Thabo Mbeki. There was a warm welcome as well for FW De Klerk, the white president who officially ended apartheid.

The crowd then went on to show that their critical acumen extended to international as well as domestic politics, wildly clapping for Barack Obama and catcalls resounding when George W Bush appeared on the screen above the speakers.

The robust stance of the public present at the stadium stopped the proceedings, as they can do in such circumstances, from sliding into blandness. They were, however, smaller in numbers than expected. Much has been made of the grand scale of the ceremonies around Mr Mandela’s death. As well as the current heads of state, the government was keen to publicise that there were 10 former heads, 86 heads of delegations and 75 “eminent persons” in attendance.

The service was expected to attract a capacity 95,000 at Soweto’s football stadium, the place where Mr Mandela made his last public appearance, at the World Cup finals three years ago. Instead there was a noticeable swathe of empty seats behind the VIP enclosure.

Some blamed the lower turnout on repeated warnings from officials for people to stay away as they could not possibly get in, such was the demand. A large numbers of roads had also been shut off for security reasons; the precautions were, however, haphazardly applied; no searches of any kind were carried out going into the ground through some of the gates.

“It would not rain in Soweto, this day, Madiba’s day”, has been a common refrain in this wet period. But it did, relentlessly, and that appeared to have been the reason some, at least, were put off.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the veteran ANC leader who directed the service, declared: “This is how Nelson Mandela would have wanted to be sent on. When it rains when you are buried it means the gods are welcoming you and the doors of Heaven are most probably open as well.” It was, indeed, a day for Nelson Mandela, and there were plaudits aplenty from the array of international dignitaries in praise of a man who had been raised to an extraordinary level of veneration, a figure who can unite opponents, however briefly.

Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands, decades-long confrontation and confrontations over sanctions put aside for the moment.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro (AP) Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro (AP)
It was only the second time that a US president had shaken the hand of a Cuban communist leader.

Thirteen years earlier Bill Clinton had done so with Raul’s brother Fidel following a United Nations meeting in New York and, on that occasion, the White House at first flatly denied it had occurred and then charged Mr Castro with carrying out a social ambush for publicity reasons.

On this occasion the two men could unite in their praise for Mr Mandela. The US President called him the “greatest liberator of the 20th century” and compared him to Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln. To Raul Castro, who also took to the podium to deliver a tribute, he was a “champion of liberation and equality”, someone who fought for the oppressed “all his life”.

For those in the stands, he was “Madiba” who had freed them from the shackles of apartheid and ensured that his country did not collapse into savage racial war. The promise that the new beginning and democracy offered to South Africa has, in part, remains unfulfilled, leading to unpopularity of the kind scandal-hit Mr Zuma experienced.

Tony Blair was one of three former British prime ministers, along with Gordon Brown and Sir John Major, who had accompanied David Cameron for the trip along with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.

Mr Cameron spoke of an “extraordinary scene up there in the heads of state and government lounge” which gave, as well as paying homage to Mr Mandela, the opportunity for practical diplomacy. “A lot of other business will be done, I suspect,” he said.

U2 singer Bono sits next to South African actress Charlize Theron (Getty) U2 singer Bono sits next to South African actress Charlize Theron (Getty)
Also present were Bill and Hillary Clinton, François Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, the singer Bono and the supermodel Naomi Campbell. But the undoubted star of the show was Mr Obama. Introduced to the audience as a “son of the African soil”, as Mr Mandela had been known, he raised the stadium to its feet. “Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men,” said Mr Obama. “But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears, his miscalculations along with his victories. ‘I’m not a saint,’ he said, ‘unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’”

There were glimpses of Mr Mandela’s private life which had not been without controversy. His former wife Winnie, a staunch comrade in the fight against apartheid who later attracted notoriety over political and business activities, seemed distraught as she walked in held by her daughter Zindzi. She embraced Graca Machel, Mr Mandela’s third wife, and spoke quietly before sitting down.

Closing the ceremony, Archbishop Desmond Tutu demanded that the clamour and occasional jeering should stop and he would not give the final blessing until he could “hear a pin drop”. The noise did quiet down briefly after laughter. “Now this is what Nelson would have wanted,” said the cleric.

South African Archbishop and Honorary Elders Desmond Tutu delivers his speech South African Archbishop and Honorary Elders Desmond Tutu delivers his speech
To 20-year-old Layla Ibrahim, watching from pitchside with plastic sheeting over her to keep out the rain, it was an historical education.

“I was quite young when Madiba and his friends were so active, it is really interesting to see them all here together. The people I am with were a bit embarrassed about the booing of Jacob Zuma because there were so many foreigners present. But I feel people have had to suppress their political feelings in the past and that should not happen any longer.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future