Rain and angry crowd turn ‘dignified’ state memorial into washout for ANC
Stadium two-thirds full and speeches drowned out by booing crowds
Attendees listen to a speech during the state memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium in the Soweto township. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times
It did not turn out quite as planned.
The state memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela would fill this giant 96,000-seat football stadium with adoring fans. An unprecedented number of world leaders would come to praise a man whose reputation girdled the Earth and who in turn was loved, seemingly without dissent, by the entire human race.
His comrades and political associates would showcase his life and achievements to the world and, perhaps display themselves in flattering profile to their own people – less than a year out from an election.
In the event, the stadium was about two-thirds full (rain may have deterred some) and much of the service was smothered in cat calls, booing and jeering at Mandela’s successor in title, current South African president Jacob Zuma, with his probable successor, African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, several times begging the crowd to behave.
Three times Ramaphosa asked them to stop jeering, on one occasion actually interrupting the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, interjecting to beg the crowd. “We have visitors, let’s not embarrass ourselves,” he said.
But the crowd’s anger became so acute that Ramaphosa tried to purchase some respite, telling them Zuma’s address, billed as the keynote speech of the occasion, would be brief.
As people began pouring out of the stadium before Zuma’s address, Ramaphosa took to the podium and, pointing sharply at the crowd, implored them in Xhosa to “be seated, be seated, be seated, be seated”.
They largely ignored him.
The day began on a very different note.
A dull and dank Johannesburg dawn gave way to drizzle as, from 5am on, people began to arrive at the stadium. Roads were closed. Free public transport was available and, for those unable to get to the stadium, the service would be screened at public locations throughout the country and live on national television.
The weather played a not insignificant role in dampening spirits. The lower tiers of the stadium, where seating was afforded little or no protection from the rain, remained largely empty. But the uppermost tier facing the triple stage was packed from early, with singing and dancing ANC supporters airing their exuberance.
Gradually, the stadium filled to perhaps two-thirds of its capacity. By the time proceedings began, an hour late at 12 noon, there were already firm indications that a very large section of the crowd, a majority, was prepared to give full vent to feelings the ANC leadership would not like.
As world leaders began to arrive, warning signs started to emerge. There was an enormous cheer for former presidents Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk, the last apartheid ruler with whom Mandela negotiated the non-racial democracy that is South Africa.
But when two giant screens inside the stadium showed Mandela’s former wife Winnie arriving, there was a mixed reaction with a large section of the crowd booing. A similar reaction greeted any showing of supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a faction led by Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader facing corruption charges. Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, his children and grandchildren, were greeted with approval. However, when Zuma entered the stadium there was long and loud booing and jeering.
The event was presided over by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and Baleka Mbete, former deputy president and speaker of the national assembly, who sensed the mood early.
Ramaphosa began formal proceedings by appealing for a “dignified” service. He was followed by religious messages from South Africa’s chief rabbi Warren Goldstein; Ashwin Trikanjee, a leader of South Africa’s Hindu community; Iman Ebrahim Bham of the Islamic community; and Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba.
It was during the first of 15 planned eulogies that the depth of feeling in the crowd became apparent. As Andrew Mlangeni, a Mandela family friend, spoke, reading from his script, the camera panned across the seated dignitaries, projecting the image on to the giant screen. When Zuma’s face appeared, the crowd erupted into sustained jeering and booing. Similar booing greeted images of Mr Malema’s red-shirted and red-bereted EFF supporters.
Next to speak was Gen Thanduxolo Mandela, who also read from a script. When the camera again showed Zuma, his voice was drowned out in a wave of booing and jeering.
The atmosphere in the stadium felt electric. The platform was clearly becoming alarmed.
As Ramaphosa once again appealed, this time asking for “discipline”, the camera panned a view of US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, causing further uproarious cheering of approval.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, who drew sustained cheers of approval, lauded Mandela for living “a mighty life”, creating South Africa’s rainbow nation of all races treated equally. He was, said Ban, “one of the greatest leaders of our time”.
By now, the stadium TV screens were blank, the link cut apparently to stop the crowd’s jeering. A crowd of about 200 occupied the empty space behind the stage, delivering non-stop booing at the proceedings, prompted in part it seemed by the cutting of the TV link after Ban’s address.
They ignored Ramaphosa’s appeals for quiet. And as Obama rose to speak, the cry went up “TV, TV, TV,TV” and stayed up until the screens were switched back on.
Obama’s soaring praise for Mr Mandela almost seemed to underscore the crowd’s unhappiness: here at last was what they wanted – oratory and celebration.
Ramaphosa began to implore the crowd. There would only be three more speakers, he said, and Zuma would be short as well. The president of India rose to speak and immediately a brass band erupted, drowning him out. Ramaphosa interrupted: “We are near the end,” he pleaded with them.
By now, however, people were pouring out of the stadium. As Cuban president Raul Castro spoke, the screens showed Ramaphosa urgently consulting others on the platform.
“It gives me great pleasure,” Ramaphosa said when Castro was finished, “to introduce. . .” But Zuma’s name was smothered by the crowd and instead a warm-up speaker, a representative of Zuma’s Zulu people, took to the podium and roared praise of Zuma’s leadership qualities. The stadium by now at least half empty, allowed Zuma relative quiet to give his address.
It was not the memorial service that had been planned.