JOHANNESBURG – There was one moment in U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on Tuesday that was unforgettable. Toward the end, Obama quoted a poem that Nelson Mandela liked to read in his prison cell on Robben Island. Behind Obama was a glass wall, and through it, despite the pouring rain, one could see hundreds of South Africans in the stands, swaying from side to side, waving their hands in the air, holding colorful banners and shouting themselves hoarse. The black American president, Mandela’s favorite poem and the dancing masses suddenly seemed to encapsulate this entire unique funeral, which could happen only here.
Anyone who was expecting a solemn funeral filled with tears and lamentations was in for a surprise. Not here, not on Tuesday. Even the coffin was absent from the stadium. South Africa said goodbye to its “Madiba” in its own way – with tens of thousands of ordinary folks alongside a parade of world leaders, in an enthralling African blend.
South Africa celebrated on tuesday – yes, celebrated. It wasn’t just the South African belief that a person’s death is grounds to celebrate because he has joined his ancestors, and will continue to watch over those who live on from his new dwelling place. It celebrated because of its deep feelings of gratitude to this great leader. It was a rare moment in which Africa stood tall before a world that was suddenly interested in it, if only momentarily.
The FNB stadium was full, though not jam-packed as expected, apparently because of the rain. Six hours before the ceremony, crowds of people were already streaming toward it, blacks and whites together, if that still needs to be said here. It was an impressive march of the living.
Those hours before the ceremony were the most moving of all – much more so than the parade of famous people and the endless speeches that came afterward. I sat as if hypnotized by the singing, the dancing, the atmosphere, the colors and the exemplary order, without armies of security guards or ridiculously stringent security checks like in Israel, despite the fact that most of the world’s leadership was en route.
The well-organized ceremony opened with remarks by religious leaders, of whom the first was South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein. Wherever I looked in the stands, I saw another world leader.
Loudest boos for Zuma
Nelson Mandela's memorial at the FNB stadium
Among the noisy processions that wended their way between the stands was one that urged “Free Palestine.” But it was swallowed up in the teeming crowd. So were the handful of boos that arose when the emcee mentioned Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu as being among those who sent condolences. Robert Mugabe, the perpetual president of neighboring Zimbabwe, which has sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished migrants into South Africa and thereby worsened its already shaky economic situation, also didn’t seem to be a hit. But the loudest booing was reserved for South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, who gave the main speech. In contrast, his predecessor Thabo Mbeki got loud applause.
The loudest cheers, however, were reserved for Obama; who else? There’s probably nowhere else on earth where he would receive such applause today. But he and Michelle stole the show. As their images appeared on the huge screens positioned on either side of the stadium, the crowd erupted in a deafening roar that bordered on hysteria, of the kind normally reserved for pop stars. Mandela freed “not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well. ... He changed laws, but also hearts,” Obama declaimed.
At the end of his speech, which both the local radio and the BBC termed impressive, he went over to the platform where the family sat and kissed the cheeks of Mandela’s widow and children, a gesture reserved only for him. On his way out, he took care to shake hands with the workers who stood alongside the stage.
Just half a century ago, no one would have believed that such a scene could ever take place – that the death of the dangerous prisoner, the terrorist, the communist, the traitor, would bring his country to a halt, and with it, the entire world. That dozens of international statesmen would come to give him this last honor. That every major media outlet would broadcast the funeral live throughout the world. We need to consider that in other contexts as well.
No one on Tuesday was unmoved by the sea of swaying umbrellas, nor was anyone unmoved when Obama read that stanza from William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
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