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Memorial missed Madiba magic

Tens of thousands braved the rain to attend the memorial in Johannesburg, but many of the speeches felt rehearsed.
Last modified: 12 Dec 2013 02:21
Barack Obama called Mandela a 'giant of history' in his speech [Reuters]

It was a bizarre day. There were moving gestures, thunderous rounds of applause and boring, staid speeches.

As memorial services go, it is said there has never been anything bigger. With tens of thousands of spectators, more than 50 heads of state in attendance, the security apparatus had the surrounding area in a virtual lock-down.

The stage then was set, the occasion however lacked magic. Every speech felt rehearsed, every gesture emptied of sincerity.

Only Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu spoke from the heart, as he always seems to do. But by then, the stadium was empty, the mourners themselves dearly departed.

Then there was the rain; a steady, unremitting soaking from sobbing skies that forced thousands to cower under umbrellas, coats and scarves for the four-hour marathon affair.

It could never have been a sunny day after all.

Up until Tuesday, the day of the memorial service in Johannesburg, the sun had not shone in the city since Nelson Mandela's death - a sign in African culture of a respected elder being welcomed into heaven.

When Mandela became president in 1994, some 60 heads of state gathered in Pretoria to witness the transfer of power. The event is largely considered the biggest gathering of heads of states since the JFK funeral in 1963.

And with his passing, the memorial became the biggest event of its kind since perhaps the funeral of Pope John II in 2005.

Heads of state might have come to pay homage to Madiba but they ended up witnessing a second christening of the post-apartheid state.

End of an era

Madiba’s passing was never about the flesh and blood of a man. It was about the end of an era.

Across the stadium, the tens of thousands of people who had braved the rain, travelling far and wide to pay their respects to Madiba (and catch a glimpse of Barack Obama, Bono or Charlize Theron) came with an enthusiasm that spoke of a deeper restlessness.

With the passing of the father of the nation, the decisiveness of forgiveness or the fragility of ambition has suddenly dissipated.

With the loss of Madiba, it is as if the glue that held leader and citizen together also evaporated. In the face of endless text book tributes to the great man, the crowd’s disdain for most speakers seemed to call out for sincerity, for a new hope to take them forward.

Madiba was not a saint. Despite his flaws however, Madiba had always represented "hope", and now even that has gone. The crowd that had assembled at the stadium had to watch their president, Jacob Zuma, dispassionately read out a statement that might have been printed off Wikipedia.

He may as well have just said "Madiba was a good man" and got it over with it.

In that vein, it is no surprise the crowd booed their own president even before he spoke; Zuma is already not the most popular in Johannesburg, and to think they were burying Madiba for Zuma, seemed to unnerve even more than the a handful of troublemakers.

Rumours abound that police were sent into areas of the crowd to root out the "trouble elements" in time for the president’s speech.

“There is no one like Madiba. He was one of a kind,” Zuma seemed to only say, which also only left thousands tearing more frustratedly at their hair.

But then, none of the speeches resonated.

Obama's turn of phrase

So much has been said, made out of Barack Obama’s speech, even more made out of his selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but only the myopic would have found his eulogy inspiring.

A 75-year-old-former pastor from Soweto described Obama “as just being loud”. A security guard in Parkhurst said Obama seemed to bring up his wife Michelle in his speech just for the heck of it.

It is not that Obama’s sentiments didn’t sound sincere. Its just that if you are familiar with Obama’s speeches through the years, you realise his sincerity is malleable.

That the crowd had to be subjected to his pretty turn of phrase, that has become such a hideous habit, was not lost on the spectators.

They lost interest half way, because his words meant nothing to them.

South Africans love Obama though because they wish Zuma could at least act a little like him.

If Obama’s elevation to the spotlight in this complete farce of a memorial is to reveal anything of the South Africa Mandela has left behind, it would be the deepening alienation felt by ordinary South Africans at the hands of a liberation movement gone astray.

Speaking to ordinary South Africans across the city of Johannesburg, in informal settlements outside the city, in poorer districts within Soweto, Mandela is increasingly being seen as separate entity to the ANC.

The ANC might have created Mandela in their image, but the country is now growing up; soon they would not be burdened by their allegiance to Mandela in deciding who should run the country.

The raucous applause for former president Thabo Mbeki however came as the biggest surprise.

Mbeki: the man who had been shunned by the ANC for deferring the revolution, the same man rebuked as a cold intellectual whom the masses could not relate to was celebrated.

It may not mean anything, but it just might complete the tale of a shifting politick.

It tells of an electorate searching for alternative and the unruliness of the crowd at Madiba’s farewell is merely a sign of things to come.