Never, never and never again will South Africa receive in one day anything like the number of global leaders that turned up for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB stadium this week. Never again – short, maybe, of another football World Cup – will the country receive such widespread and intense media attention. It was an opportunity to do honour to Mandela and put on a spectacle to display South Africa, as befitted the mighty occasion, in the best possible light. But, boy, did they blow it.
Not the people who showed up, but the organisers, meaning the government. The pity of it is that Barack Obama, the presidents and prime ministers of the Bahamas, Burundi, Brazil, Britain, the crown prince of Japan and the whole host of honoured foreign guests were not encouraged to join us high up in the stadium rafters during the five fortunate hours that I found myself standing, jumping and swaying among the crowd prior to the beginning of the official proceedings.
It was such a party! The party of the year – of the century. A celebration, a proud and joyous thanksgiving, singing and dancing so uplifting, so pitch-perfect, so synchronised that anyone unaware of South Africans’ astounding natural gift for choral harmony would have imagined the event had been preceded by six months of rigorous rehearsals. Had the big man been watching from on high (a fellow next to me asked, not entirely ludicrously, “Do you think Mandela is going to start a new religion?”), he’d have been delighted, smiling and laughing and jiving along with the best of them.
But once the dignitaries started to file into the stadium and the speeches began, he would have struggled to avoid falling asleep – as he might have done, restrained only by his exquisite good manners, to avoid joining in the chorus of boos that greeted President Zuma each time he appeared on the stadium’s big screens.
It was a little unseemly of the multitudes to jeer Zuma, it is true. Yet if evidence were needed that Mandela will remain the moral conscience of South Africa – lucky South Africa – now and for the rest of time, here it was. Was it possible to honour Mandela’s legacy, as Zuma enjoined us to do, and salute him, Zuma, at the same time? Were the two concepts compatible? The crowd certainly didn’t think so. But never mind Zuma. Like the bad weather, there was nothing to be done to stop him showing up. What the occasion called for was a brilliant production, one that had been planned, thought through and – yes – rehearsed meticulously, not excluding the sign language interpreter, so as to allow Mandela’s spirit to shine through in death as it had done in life.
In the light of everything else, thank goodness for Obama, who showed how things should have been done by giving a speech of intelligence, originality and strong emotion, even if the “selfie” he colluded in with the Danish Prime Minister undid some of his good work and contributed to undermining still further the gravitas of the occasion. As for the rest of the foreign speakers, little wonder the crowd began to fidget, to dance, to sing and even to start beating drums as they droned on, and on.
Delivering one bromide banality after another (the one time in my life when I have regretted speaking Spanish was when Raúl Castro got up to speak), they deserved even greater shows of discourtesy than they received – precisely because of the lack of respect they showed Mandela in failing to rise above the platitudinous pomposities with which they chilled the already cool afternoon air. For heaven’s sake, it’s not as if they or the event’s organisers hadn’t had enough time to prepare!
OK, then. So, apart from cutting all the speeches by two thirds and losing half the individuals who delivered them, what might have been done? Well, for starters, what about having given a little thought to what Mandela himself might have enjoyed? How about, as a friend at the stadium suggested, bringing loads of little children on stage to perform a big song and dance?
How about Johnny Clegg and the Soweto Gospel Choir bringing the house down with “Asimbonanga”? How about a slick, short but moving video up on the screens showing some of Mandela’s greatest moments?
And, and, AND?…? How about Archbishop Desmond Tutu making the big South African speech of the day? After Mandela – and not far behind him – he is the greatest talent the country has produced in recent times. He’d have wowed the crowd and the worldwide audience. But the government – rancorous, petty-minded, so not like Mandela – sidelined him because, one can only suppose, he’d said a few things in the recent past that Zuma did not like.
The lesson is clear, as it has been all week since Mandela died: that the national picture looks so much better, shines so much brighter, when the government is not in it. The shame was that the sloppy spirit of South Africa’s current President, and not the magnanimous one of the country’s greatest leader, should have defined the proceedings on stage at the memorial service in the FNB.
An opportunity was squandered never to return again. But lucky we, we happy few, that Mandela was with us, thrillingly, among the crowd.
Video: Nelson Mandela interpreter - "Most terrible day of my life"