Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

If that was Madiba’s memorial – God help us all

I was deeply moved watching this video of Johnny Clegg with Madiba. Songs like these make me shiver. They reduce my feelings to ash, the kind of ash that sweetens and embitters you with the memories of the promises most South Africans held closer than the breath in their lungs in the heady days of The Transition.

Those were my student days (1985-1988) and the years just after. They were years of trying to make a poetry of my unique SA experience (and failing). And knowing that this kind of music succeeded, especially with its visuals of Madiba dancing with, oh, anyone. He had time for anyone who came across his path — and that magnificent, naughty grin of his was only made brighter, more resolute, by his imprisonment.

The music made me remember the youngster I was, a teacher at Langa High School, standing near Cape Town’s City Hall on that dangerous day the great man was released in 1990. My fist was up, my arm a small mast in the forest of masts, thumb firmly tucked inside my fingers. I felt I was being breathed and blown by something far greater than what I could ever be. That again was because of the music, now the music of the masses, the irrepressible surge within us all that urges freedom. And yes, near City Hall was a dangerous and frightening place to be. Then he arrived.

There was no middle way with the noise that he initiated.

Either you were terrified or awestruck. I was both. The din behind amandla and the reply of the crowds, was a noise that moulded you, took you by the scruff and shook you around. The sounds of exhortation that echoed between the most famous ex-prisoner in the world and the masses at his feet were visceral. For a moment, you lost all personal identity. And this man, this Madiba, could have, just perhaps, done whatever he liked with us all. But he chose a road of peace and reconciliation and the most indelible emblem of what he stood for is that magnificent, naughty grin. It brings out the best in us.

But now we have this memorial service in his honour. For those of us who watched his release it was a travesty.

Zuma got booed as he came up to speak, in stark contrast with what happened when Madiba came up onto that balcony in 1990. At the memorial, we had people, like the columnist Khaya Dlanga, begging people on tweets to stop jeering as it was “embarrassing”.

So it was embarrassing.

If I stand before you dressed, and you jeer at me and point fingers because you say I am naked … well, I can’t be embarrassed because I know I am clothed. But if I am naked, I am embarrassed, because your jeering points to the truth.

Zuma is an embarrassment. The people have spoken.

Madiba was and is one of the greatest examples of what a person and a nation can aspire to. Whenever Madiba appeared in public the people reflected this. The people have spoken.

Welcome to the truth, all those tweeters who wanted the booing to stop just because … it was “embarrassing”.

Utterly unlike Zuma’s, Obama’s speech was elegant, stirring, and he barely glanced at his notes. Obama didn’t need white A4 sheets of paper to mumble at like Zuma.

Of course, no one in his right mind could miss the slippery eel in this extract from Obama’s speech, where he adroitly avoids using terms like “prisoners” and “detention with trial“: “The questions we face today — how to promote equality and justice; to uphold freedom and human rights; to end conflict and sectarian war — do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child in Qunu.”

“Freedom” he says? Who knows how many prisoners the US has right now in Guantanamo and elsewhere? These are indefinite detentions without trial, one of the many evils of apartheid that the very man Obama was paying tribute to, sought to end. As polished as his eulogy was, Obama was part of the travesty, which didn’t end there …

… We had the sign-interpreter for the deaf who was a fake that the whole world can now incredulously laugh at. South Africa has a world-class Constitution. It is a document with Madiba’s fingerprints all over it. The Constitution enshrines rights for all, including the disabled. Yet the South African government, guided (ostensibly) by this Constitution, made a mockery of the deaf worldwide. How on earth did the PR goon squad who put this together think they could ever get away with it? Should we censor this “embarrassment” as well? Absolutely not. Let the truth out.

The one saving grace was the travesty that was not a travesty: Obama and that cool selfie. It’s so human. Here are three world leaders, with Madiba-like grins, shoulders pressed together for the pic, celebrating life, having fun. Only those who are free can do that. The people mirrored this in the FNB stadium. They were dancing and soaking up this significant moment. For them it was a shillelagh, the festivity of an Irish wake. Listen to your hearts: this is what Madiba would want.

Mandela would want us to get on with being truly human, to turning life into a jol where possible. Hell, he and Johnny Clegg set the example. Obama’s selfie is ingenuous, what we are when others aren’t looking and who we want to be. And this is entirely unlike watching a bald man bumbling through A4 sheets of paper while the people boo. Or another leader who doesn’t need notes and who knows how to speak about human rights and oppression without mentioning his very own prisoners’ detention without trial. Both these men were just as much a lampoon of what is truly valuable and human — our freedom and dignity — as that clown pretending to the world he knew how to do sign language interpreting.

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