CT’s Memorial: The tribute Madiba deserved
With Johannesburg's official memorial for Mandela at FNB Stadium marred by issues ranging from a dodgy sign language interpreter to a feeling of general soullessness, it was hard not to feel despondent. But Cape Town's memorial event, held at the Green Point stadium on Wednesday night, gave the great leader the send-off he deserved. For anyone lucky enough to be there, the sight of a multi-racial, multi-class crowd singing and dancing in a moment of unified catharsis will have moved them in innumerable ways. It was Madiba Magic given flesh and form once again, and it deserves to give us back the pride and hope that we need now, more than ever.
It is difficult to talk or write about Wednesday night's Cape Town memorial without seeming to be giving renewed life to those cheesy Castle ads from the mid-1990s. But the hackneyed old trope of the Rainbow Nation was truly everywhere, in a stadium in a city often rightly criticised for its ongoing racial divisions. Helen Zille was seen sitting in the thick of a group of red-bereted EFF supporters, amiably chatting. Johnny Clegg wooed the crowd with fierce Zulu poems; the Bala brothers moved them to tears with an Afrikaans melody. Strangers hugged and posed for photos. The former captain of a rugby team once synonymous with Apartheid privilege, Francois Pienaar, was cheered so lustily that he couldn't make himself heard above the din.
A black boy and a white girl sat, their limbs lovingly intertwined, next to two jiving SANDF members in military fatigues, sporting glow-stick epaulettes pinned on them by a group of interracial youngsters. At the end of the evening, as Ladysmith Black Mambazo's harmonies soared hauntingly, the crowd took off the glow-sticks adorning their heads and wrists and bound them together in an incandescent rope stretching nearly the length of the stadium. An 11-year old performance poet, Botlhale Boikanyo, told the story of Mandela's heroic life in mixed Xhosa and English with a verve that challenged any other eulogy given in this country thus far. Legendary old man of letters, Don Mattera, read poems of loss and sorrow: "Madiba!" he cried, as if from his very soul. "Madiba!"
And the crowd danced. How they danced, and sang; as if something colossal was at stake that could only be expressed in music, and rhythm, and movement. While the sun was still in the sky, the crowd's voices lifted in an unaccompanied version of Asimbonanga, Johnny Clegg's 1987 lament for the man who languished in an island prison. Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)/ Asimbonang' uMandela thina (We have not seen Mandela). When Clegg himself appeared on stage, as the sun was setting, there was only one choice for what the crowd would hear. Then the stadium reverberated with sound as if its inhabitants were trying to make themselves heard to Mandela in another world: Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey/ Look across the Island into the Bay/ We are all islands till comes the day/ We cross the burning water.
There were speeches, of course, from across the political spectrum: from Trevor Manuel and Marius Fransman, Patricia de Lille and Helen Zille. When Zille took the lectern, there were a few boos; a woman was captured on the big screen giving a furious thumbs-down. But Zille launched immediately into a Xhosa song, and the crowd joined their voices to hers. It was not a night for petty party politicking, or for politics at all, in fact. Nobody was there to listen to talking heads tell them what Mandela should mean to them. They didn't need any help with that. It was there in the sorrow-filled cries of "Aah, Dalibunga"; in the celebratory jiving to Brenda Fassie's Black President; in the sea of flags of the democratic South Africa which seemed to cover every conceivable inch of space in the packed stands.
It is churlish, and silly, to make a competition of send-offs to Madiba. Cape Town had much on its side that Johannesburg lacked the day before: not least gloriously warm weather and a general spirit of relaxed celebration that would always co-exist impossibly with the need to provide security arrangements for 53 heads of state. Where the FNB stadium had snipers, Cape Town Stadium had glow-sticks. Where the FNB Stadium had BRICS leaders woodenly delivering official statements of regret, Cape Town had tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans swaying in a rollicking, colourful party to celebrate the life of their country's greatest citizen. We can guess which one Madiba would rather have been at.
This column appeared in Daily Maverick.