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.