Nelson Mandela. A man who rose above his imperfections and changed the world. A testament to his legacy is that even in death he united nations and enemies who came together to remember him at the FNB stadium in Soweto on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, London said its own goodbye to the former president in a memorial service at St-Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square. The multicultural gathering was truly the rainbow nation he dreamed of. The South African national anthem, performed at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 and the only neo-modal anthem to be sung in five of South Africa’s 11 official languages, was the perfect start to the service, after the initial welcome from Reverend Sam Wells, vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields.
Though the atmosphere was sombre, there was a buoyancy from all who got up and spoke. The Master of Ceremonies Reverend Jongi Zihle brought an injection of joviality to the proceedings in true South African style. Many kind words were said as, unified in our grief, we reminisced about the man that was.
Lord Joel Joffe CBE, one of the lawyers who defended Mandela in the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial spoke of the man willing to die for the freedom of others and the unforgettable manner with which he and his ANC comrades conducted themselves in court. He recited Mandela’s famous statement from the dock and a description of the courtroom situation that day, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Unable to leave the podium without mention of Madiba’s lovely smile and mischievous humour, Lord Joffe told of a time when Mandela spotted him in the audience and said with a cheeky grin, “There is Joel Joffe, who sent me to prison for 27 years.”
Mama Thembi Nobadula, ANC veteran and a participant in the Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, spoke of her second encounter with him – the time she and other women went to ask him why he was bending over backwards to appease those who had oppressed him. “He treated us like comrades…with a firm handshake he greeted us. He said that the architects of apartheid were the very people that should be liberated first before anything’s done because if those were not liberated then South Africa would not be free. Mandela was a good man, a good listener, he didn’t make anybody feel small. U’Madiba was a man for Africa.”
Sir Sydney Kentridge KCMG, who defended Mandela at the Treason Trial and represented Steve Biko’s family, gave a touching tribute. “His soulfulness, his complete integrity, and above all some quality of leadership was obviously apparent.” Kentridge mentioned Mandela’s affable description of himself as “An old age pensioner with a criminal record.” He then went on to read an excerpt of Seamus Heaney’s powerful poem ‘The Cure At Troy’ drawing parallels to apartheid South Africa.
The innocent in gaols [jails]
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
“On the day that Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first president of a democratic South Africa, hope and history had miraculously arrived,” declared Sir Kentridge.
Musical tributes came from the South African High Commission Choir and St-Martin-in-the-Fields Choral Scholars. A simple but poignant sermon from Reverend Sam Wells was also delivered, followed by verses from the Bible in both Xhosa, Mandela’s mother tongue, and English.
Acting South African High Commissioner in London, Bongiwe Qwabe, expressed ‘heartfelt gratitude from our government and the people of South Africa and gave ‘special thanks to the British people for their overwhelming support and kindness at this time’.
“In South Africa and across the world we will not forget the values that Mandela stood for and sacrificed his life for,” she said. “He will be a constant reminder that individuals have the power to make change today. Let us always remember and be guided by his example as a fighter for freedom and a model of forgiveness. We say he was fighting for change, in South Africa we are that change.”
As the service ended with celebratory chants, dancing and singing, a sense of joy and gratitude was palpable. I joined the crowd marching and singing from St-Martin-in-the-Fields to Trafalgar Square, thankful for the freedom Mandela, the African National Congress and many others had gained for us. We were honouring Africa’s greatest son, and in that moment it felt like home. I couldn’t help but be hopeful that South Africa would be fine as Madiba showed us the way. It’s up to us now to charter our future.
“It is now in the hands of your generations to help rid the world of such suffering.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013