Mandela’s Memorial

The scene at Durban City Hall

In typical colonial fashion, the manicured gardens opposite the Durban City Hall feature a monument to Queen Victoria and various icons of early white history. Today, the descendants of those subjugated by British and Dutch colonisers crowded the steps of those statues to watch the memorial for Nelson Mandel, broadcast live from Pretoria.

Kept thin by the rain, the largely black crowd can’t have numbered more than five hundred at any one time. But many stayed for the full five hours of the memorial, the start delayed by the late arrival of dignitaries to the FNB Stadium, the famous Soccer City near Soweto, and persistent rain. With the slate weighed-down by a too-full slate of speeches, songs, prayers and formalities, many in Durban and the stadium and grew restless for long stretches. Repeatedly and futilely, the masters of ceremonies called for order.

Many speeches rehashed similar ideas about Mandela and his importance to South Africa and the world. But there were some shining moments. Particularly moving were the brief words his great-granddaughter Phumla Mandela, a young woman with the dignity to match her fire and passion.

President Obama’s speech was easily the best crafted. More than any other, his dwelt on Mandela the man, his imperfections as well as his achievements, and what he found within himself to overcome towering challenges. As he did in his great speech on race from the 2008 election campaign, Obama avoided bromides and instead articulated how Mandela relied not only on actions and ideas, but also the painstaking work of building institutions and an unshakeable faith in Ubuntu, ‘the ties that bind the human spirit.’

Memorial badges of Mandela

At his introduction and throughout his speech, Obama drew loud applause from the crowd in Durban. With the tired ‘birther’ conspiracies in the United States, it is easy to forget that here in Africa his Kenyan ancestry carries enormous weight and meaning. He is the first American president to not just know Africa but to be of this place.

This differing perspective was even more evident in the cheers that greeted the appearance on screen of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. While western media paints him an anti-democratic strongman, many South Africans sympathise with his redistribution of land and wealth. While Mugabe had no formal role, President Raúl Castro of Cuba did and was similarly received.

In Durban, in his native (and electorally-crucial) KwaZulu-Natal, cheers also greeted South Africa’s own President Jacob Zuma, but boos filled the stadium itself, a sign of increasingly division in the broader electorate. Zuma’s speech was long, dry, and careful to emphasis the role of the ANC in Mandela’s life. Facing elections in 2014, Zuma and the ANC are expected to hold government but slip substantially in the vote. There were few surprises, then, in hearing Zuma do his best to make as many tactful references to the ANC as possible.

Yet the most striking moments of the memorial were unscripted. With vuvuzelas aplenty, makeshift bands scattered about the stadium and sections of the crowd breaking into spontaneous song and dance, many clearly wanted to farewell Mandela their own way. Few in the stadium—or in Durban—had much patience for the halting, platitude-heavy speeches from foreign leaders, or for the endless roll call of attending leaders. Master of ceremonies Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President of the ANC and potential successor to Zuma, repeatedly demanded that the crowd show ‘discipline,’ even pulling the microphone away from Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to repeat his admonishments. Archbishop Desmond Tutu also used his time at the end of the ceremony to scold the crowd.

In the shadow of Durban’s neo-Baroque city hall and the statues of dead white colonials, it was easy understand the crowd’s frustration and the great challenges that South Africa faces in the wake of Mandela’s passing. People here want more change and wider prosperity. Many are sick of leaders who call for order, patience and discipline only to repeat the same words, the same slogans, the same ideas. During the memorial, there were a handful of official songs and the crowd in Durban stood for these, singing and dancing. It was hard not to think that many are simply sick of paternalism and want their voices to be heard more loudly. Mandela, surely, would have told them to keep the struggle alive.