Obama recalls Mandela’s greatness as Zuma jeered
Scenes at memorial event witnessed by 100 dignitaries in stadium and global audience of billions
Attendees sing prior to the start of the state memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium in the Soweto township of Johannesburg on Tuesday. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times
World leaders paid tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela at his state memorial service in Johannesburg yesterday, but their praise was overshadowed by repeated outbursts of booing and jeering by the crowd at current president Jacob Zuma.
An unprecedented gathering of about 100 presidents, former presidents, prime ministers and monarchs came to South Africa to pay homage to an outstanding and transformational leader of his country and a global inspiration.
“Thank you, South Africa, for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” said US president Barack Obama, whose address, more than any other, found approval among the 60,000 people in the stadium.
Mr Obama began: “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.”
Remarking that Mr Mandela was a man and not a saint, Mr Obama continued: “In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives.”
He was joined by former US presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who was accompanied by his wife, Hillary Clinton. Three former British prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major – were also present. Ireland was represented by President Michael D Higgins and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore. Leaders of the European Union and United Nations were present, as were leaders from all continents.
Those who spoke praised the man who delivered South Africa from apartheid and into non-racial multiparty democracy, in proceedings laced with prayer and gospel singing.
The crowd, however, delivered a humiliating blow to President Zuma and the ruling African National Congress, before a global audience estimated to have been in the billions. Mr Zuma, who faces re-election next year, has been accused by his critics of corruption.
Large sections hooted derision at Mr Zuma every time his image was shown on screens and ignored calls for “dignity” by ANC deputy president and joint master of ceremonies, Cyril Ramaphosa. Don’t embarrass us, he begged them.
There was a similar reaction when images showed members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a splinter group led by Julias Malema, the disgraced former leader of the ANC youth wing who is facing corruption charges. Near the end of the ceremony, Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to bless the crowd until they went silent.
In what seemed an effort to dampen the crowd’s antipathy towards Mr Zuma, a live relay of the event onto giant screens in the stadium went blank during the ceremony, serving only to intensify the crowd’s anger. The live relay was replaced by a picture of Mr Mandela.
There was wild cheering and applauding whenever a roving camera lighted upon someone approved by the crowd – former president Thabo Mbeki, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, or the Mandela family.
The weather – a dull drizzle from early morning that grew into a downpour during the ceremony – did not help matters but what began in a party atmosphere, with large section of the crowd singing and dancing, quickly descended into booing and jeering, which was not helped by many speeches that failed to ignite the crowd.
Only President Obama – for whom there was an ecstatic reception – seemed to have the measure of the occasion.