While I generally try to avoid public screenings of hopped-up political events, the Mandela Memorial held at FNB Stadium presented an exception to my rule. It was an opportunity for the world to pay homage to a great leader, whose ability to embody the ‘fruits of the spirit’ was unparalleled. Wanting so desperately to be proved wrong about the character of South Africa’s leaders, I tuned in with the rest of the world.
Sadly, my political and moral indignation remained fully intact, as I watched the chaotic pantomime of contradictions unfold. While many South Africans and global citizens have applauded some of the gestures made throughout the memorial, the devil was most indeed in the disturbing details.
In order to make it clear, this article is not about Zuma’s reading capabilities, about Baleka Mbete’s inability to hold a tune or Jeremy Maggs’ faux pas when he termed the event a “memorial for President Jacob Zuma”.
This article is about the subtle sweeping under the rug of Mandela’s spirit in favour of a public opportunity to applaud the ANC in all its green and gold glory. There are the things which we saw, but also some things which we should’ve seen and which should make us deeply uncomfortable.
First and foremost, the audience was welcomed. Presidents, delegations and “everyone else”. While the government seemingly made an effort to include citizens of South Africa in the memorial, it is indeed strange to me that every other speech maker acknowledged our citizens properly while our own Programme Director, Cyril Ramaphosa saw fit to label the people as ‘everyone else’, despite the fact that these individuals had come out (on a work day I might add) in the rain to say goodbye to their most beloved leader.
Twitter feeds showed that the Metrorail was delayed by over half an hour due to the numbers of commuters for the event and yet, this was never acknowledged. Instead, we were told time and time again that Obama was coming, as if the American Messiah would make the loss any less, or the event any less sad. This hero-worshipping was abhorrent to say the least.
While Obama, Bush and Clinton arrived via jet plane, the effort of those who travelled on sub-standard public transport was entirely forgotten.
Used before in an ANC event
But then of course, there was the interfaith prayer which was opened and my heart thawed somewhat. I thought a little odd that no representative of indigenous faith practices was involved, despite the fact that South Africa is one of the few countries which both legally and socially recognizes the rights and significance of traditional leaders.
But perhaps, a man in traditional garb would be too much of a shock to the international system? Oh wait, but later on there was a praise singer. Not singing the praises of our most dearly departed Mandela, but singing the praises of President Zuma. Why on earth that was necessary or appropriate is entirely beyond me.
But the international guests couldn’t understand it, so no harm no foul right? Wrong.
And the piece de resistance of a progressive nation, flying the flag of justice and Ubuntu: a sign language interpreter. Except he wasn’t an interpreter. Nor was he using sign language. Instead, as described in City Press, this interpreter, used before in an ANC event, was allowed to make useless signs in a sort of choreographed dance.
The ANC has just remarked that they will investigate the matter. Well, that’s just not good enough.
While Cyril Ramaphosa and Archbishop Tutu were commanding the crowds to be silent and have discipline, the most flagrant disregard for discipline, integrity and any sort of human decency was happening right beside them. I can only begin to imagine what sort of chuckling must have been bubbling inside the fake interpreter, knowing that the thousands of deaf people around the world who had tuned in had done so for absolutely nothing.
This only scrapes the surface. Amongst other cringe-worthy, bury me alive, let the earth swallow me moments was when Baleka Mbete referred to Barack Obama as a “son of our own soil”.
Ashamed to be half-black
Well he’s just not. That’s not me being aggressive or anti-Obama; it’s really just reality (something the whole proceeding was devoid of). As a half-Kenyan, born in Kenya, even I would feel uncomfortable if I was described solely as Kenyan by a Kenyan political figure.
That aside, Obama himself has tried to resist such labels, not because he is ashamed to be half-black, but because having only seen his father a few times in his life, he owes his entire existence to the experience of being American. He is an American president. Inappropriate moment #500.
While I could continue to unpack some more of the issues, I think the trend is clear. While this event was to all of our minds, intended to be a serious and emotional last goodbye to Tata Madiba, it ended up being another example of how badly South Africa wants to fit in with the cool kids of the international community. But we have nothing to prove.
The mere presence of so many heads of states and other esteemed guests should show quite clearly that Mandela had the right idea. Through humility, hard work and authenticity, the love of the world is easily won. While I know uTata will forgive us this great trespass, we must not forgive ourselves for this.
It is no longer enough to be ‘alive with possibility’. We need to put in the hard political work into turning that possibility into an illustrious reality for all people, not just for those whom we think deserve our attention and consideration.
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