Mandela takes a back seat

2009-06-03 16:52

Cape Town - For once in his life Nelson Mandela found himself consigned to a back seat, even behind fraudster Tony Yengeni.

But the MPs assembled on Wednesday for the State of the Nation address recognised him anyway, and gave him a hero's welcome.

Mandela and his wife, Graca, were allocated seating in armchairs specially placed at the back of what is normally the public gallery of the National Assembly.

Taking a seat in the front row of the gallery, or in the boxes reserved for dignitaries, would have meant negotiating steps, which the 90-year-old finds difficult.

He entered the gallery 25 minutes before President Jacob Zuma was to start speaking, and though the area was dimly lit, his white hair shone out like a halo.

Songs of praise

Every MP, and everyone in the gallery, rose and applauded, while ANC members ululated and burst into a song of praise.

Mandela waved genially to people he knew, and was given a copy of Zuma's 16-page speech, which he followed as the president delivered it.

There was applause for Mandela again at the end of the speech, when Zuma told the assembled MPs and his television audience that the elder statesman would turn 91 next month.

"People all over the world still continue to clamour for his presence and for him to address their crises," Zuma said.

"His values and his example of dedication to the service of humanity is a shining example in today's troubled world."

Mandela Day

He urged everyone to support the recently-declared Mandela Day, on the old man's birthday, July 18.

Mandela had been politically active for 67 years, and on that day, people all over the world would be called on to spend at least 67 minutes of their time doing something useful within their communities, especially among the less fortunate, Zuma said.

Mandela's armchair was not far from another former president, Thabo Mbeki, who was allocated a seat alongside former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in the second row of the gallery, directly above the Assembly clock.

Yengeni, a former ANC chief whip who served jail time for fraud, sat directly in front of Mandela and his wife, and behind former speaker Frene Ginwala.