A tired world came to South Africa this week to rejuvenate itself by reconnecting with the most inspiring story of modern times: the way Nelson Mandela forged an impossible peace out of certain civil war by reconciling his people with their oppressors. Instead, at today’s official memorial service for Mandela, it witnessed the tawdry, workaday reality of a rambunctious democracy and a seemingly-disaffected electorate. The South African president, Jacob Zuma, was repeatedly and loudly booed by a significant portion of the crowd.
There is much angst about this tonight in South Africa, and the country’s often-overwrought political discourse has moved from dulcet legacy-speak back to fevered political contention. Is South Africa’s second Madiba Magic Moment over already?
I spent today in the Johannesburg Stadium, among 70,000 people who attended despite the torrential rain. They were in turns jubilant, exuberant, irreverent, scrappy, and sometimes downright disrespectful to those visiting luminaries who failed to engage or move them. There were, really, only two people who commanded full attention. The first was the American president, Barack Obama, who gave the day its soul and its wings. And the second was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said he would refuse to bless the day until the stadium was so silent he could “hear a pin drop”.
The crowd was quiet, it is true, during the South African president Zuma’s keynote address, a long-winded and stodgy recapitulation of Mandela’s acheivements. But this was only after it was severely reprimanded into silence by the master of ceremonies, Zuma’s party deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, who urged it to be disciplined, what with the world’s eyes watching.
Why, if Mandela is so beloved—the father of our nation—did so many people seem so disrespectful to his memory? The answer, it seems to me, lies in one of the sections of Obama’s address that got the most rousing applause. Mandela’s death, the American president said, “should prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.”
What with the corruption scandals including Zuma’s alleged misuse of state funds to build his private home in his village, the ham-handedness with which his governent has dealt with so many crises, and the increasing inequality gap, it did not appear to many in the crowd that South Africa’s current political leaders were asking itself this question. The way they chose to honour Mandela’s legacy, then, was by measuring Zuma and his power-coterie against the deceased’s example—and finding them severely wanting.
South Africa goes to the polls in April next year: Zuma will lead the ANC, and will almost certainly win, albeit—it is expected—with somewhat less enthusiasm. I have assumed, somewhat cynically, that Mandela’s death would rekindle the enthusiasm of the party faithful, but a young black woman sitting in front of me in the stadium—an office receptionist named Pretty who took unpaid leave to come to the memorial—felt very differently.
Pretty and her two girlfriends were not among the the active hecklers, but they were clearly tickled by drama: “I love the ANC,” she told me, “but I cannot vote for that man. It’s as if, if you don’t come from Ikandla [his home-village], you are not a South African. He is so arrogant. He has no respect for us.
“But doesn’t Madiba’s death make you feel more emotional about the ANC?” I asked. “Don’t you want to vote for it, in his memory?”
“The opposite!” she exclaimed. “Madiba’s death has reminded me what he stood for, and how far our leaders have fallen.”
This churning is cyclical: every five years, an increasing number of South Africans complain about their leaders before the polls, but then emotion kicks in in the voting booth, and the ANC—the people’s liberator—stays in power with a vast majority. There is no reason to expect that 2014 will be much different. Still, something profound happened at Nelson Mandela’s memorial today, and we will be feeling its aftershocks for months to come.
I am certain that everyone in that stadium loved Mandela dearly and wished to pay tribute to him with their presence, and their song, and their typically South African exuberance. But they also demonstrated a typically South African contrariness that often manifests in public events, where people express what they feel. Many people in the crowd, I sensed, had begun to tire quickly of all this “rainbow reloaded” talk that has come in the wake of Mandela’s death: about how we, the Rainbow Nation once more, are the legacy of his life.
This just does not square with peoples’ lived experiences. I thought it myself, this morning, as I joined a group of friends to take the first train from Park Station to the stadium, at 5.30 am. We all felt very righteous about our early start; our commitment. But rising out of the bowels of the platformin the opposite direction, were hundreds—no, thousands—of grim commuters who had woken much earlier than us, and who did so every day, to get to work, to feed the beast; forced to live far out of town in dormitories way beyond Soweto because of the way apartheid space has not yet been efficiently dismantled.
And I thought it again, on the way home, when our train got stuck—as South Africa’s terribly outdated rolling stock often does—and we ran through the city in the rain, along potholed and inadequate sidewalks, as most South Africans do, through underpasses filled with homeless people struggling to keep themselves dry and warm under foul blankets. How many of these people cared, or even knew, that 75 heads of state were in a stadium today, that Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, or that Winnie Mandela enfolded her successor Graca Machel in an embrace?
In the face of this, I do not mind, terribly, that my compatriots misbehaved—although I often wish South Africans were more polite. The very normality of their behaviour deflated the notion that we are a special people, with a special destiny, the rainbow children of a saintly father. We are not. We are a troubled and fractious country, in a difficult neighbourhood. We have problems. Who wouldn’t, given such a history? We struggle to resolve them, but we try. It’s a long walk to freedom indeed, and South Africans were walking it this afternoon.
Mark Gevisser will be reporting from South Africa all week for The Daily Beast as the world celebrates Mandela’s life and mourns his passing.