It wasn’t a national holiday. I was surprised it wasn’t a national day of mourning. Who wanted to be at work, when the world watched by the world’s news networks, and the world’s leaders were in our country mourning with us one of the greatest sons of our soil, of any soil. Did they come to mourn without us? It’s a momentous day when you have a memorial to eulogise Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. It deserves to be marked by giving the nation time to mourn and celebrate, to eulogise and agonise, to comfort one another, to do church; to be together at this beautiful, painful moment in our nations history. It means so much to us.
My heart soared with pride as the Presidents arrived. Obama flew from America, Cameron flew from London. The Dutch, the Indian, the Chinese, the Brazilian. 90-something of them or more from the four corners of the globe. They came to FNB Stadium in Soweto, our Soweto, to celebrate our beloved Madiba. Our beautiful South Africa is the result of the gargantuan sacrifice made for us by our beloved Madiba. He was the face of our struggle. He was our first democratically elected President. We all, without exception, love him.
The atmosphere held the promise of a celebration of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as only we, his people, know how. The world would see us at our South African celebratory best. We were on CNN and Al Jezeera and BBC and Sky, CCTV and every other news network in the world’s 258 countries. It was our moment to shine like the bright star that we are.
The weather was horrible. It rained, but they said the rain was a blessing, so we accepted it as such. I felt sorry for those who sat in the rain. I also really appreciated them. What love is that? For who do you sit in the relentless rain for all those hours? Only for Nelson Mandela, I thought. Only for love.
The memorial wasn’t what I expected. I expected to see Mkhonto we Sizwe march. They’re soldiers. They’re strong and would have stood as a guard of honour and respect despite the rain. They would have saluted Madiba, their leader. One of the former Generals of MK would have been a speaker and talked of Madiba, the first Commander in Chief of MK, and expressed the respect and grief of the veterans and told of Madiba as a commander, as a soldier. It would be moving, emotive, sincere, surprising and personal. The absence of Mkhonto we Sizwe was loud, I thought, the void cavernous.
When the first booing came I was inside the hospitality suite and I wondered who had arrived that we dislike so much. But then I got talking to someone and I forgot about it.
I was in my seat and paying attention when they showed Barack Obama on the big screen and the people cheered. I smiled. We know how to make Barack feel welcome and appreciated, I thought. I was proud of us. Then they showed our JZ and the people booed. I was shocked. My friend said, “You should see your face”. I should have seen it because I’m sure it registered disbelief beyond measure.
I was painfully aware that the world in its entirety had its eyes on our Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma the moment his people registered, unequivocally, their displeasure. On this day? Are they mad? Unbelievable! I really felt for Msholozi. I felt. I did. It must have been the very last thing he expected. It surely wasn’t even the kernel of a thought in his mind that this could happen on this day, at this time, when he is hosting every President in the world, as we celebrate one of South Africa, Africa, and the world’s greatest, most outstanding men. Wow! Engakholeki! Unbelievable! Haibo!
How embarrassing and humiliating for JZ. How do you make them stop? “Make it stop”, I thought. I expected they’d get someone to lead the people in struggle songs, lots of struggle songs. I thought the people were bored with the turgid, repetitive speeches from people they didn’t know, and who couldn’t be heard over that appalling sound system. We, the people, had come from far and wide, and there hadn’t even been an “Amandla”! Why not?
I thought the event was very de-ANC-ized. Maybe the people were unhappy about it. I understood them being unhappy about it. I was also unhappy about it. The members of branches, who sat up at the top of the stadium out of the rain were doing their own thing and singing struggle songs and Madiba songs and celebrating him while the speeches continued. But they were told they’re undisciplined and they must shut up and sit down. Hauw! They were spoken to like that in front of the world! Again, unbelievable!
Did the people not come to sing struggle songs? Did they not come to raise their fists high and shout a fervent “Amandla”? Did they not come to respond with a powerful, ardent “Awethu”? Is this not what Madiba was to us? Why was Amadla totally absent? It was as though someone outside the ANC, who doesn’t’ know the ANC, or South Africa arranged the program and controlled the event.
“It’s not about the ANC, it’s about all the people of the country.” Someone said to me.
What? Are they joking? It’s totally about the ANC. It’s about Nelson Mandela, and if Nelson Mandela isn’t about the ANC, then who is? Who? Practically every person who came to the Stadium came from an ANC branch. The stadium was full of the ANC’s people. But on the stages, and in the Stadium, there were no ANC flags. There were no banners. Most people wore ANC t-shirts and hats and carried flags. They sang ANC stuggle songs. What is this about if not the ANC?
I was there when we buried Uncle Chris Hani, and Uncle Govan Mbeki, and Auntie Albertina Sisulu, and Uncle Walter Sisulu, and my Daddy, Comrade OR, Oliver Tambo, and my Mum, Mama Adelaide Tambo and we sat under the colours and flag of the ANC. The streets were lined with ANC flags and posters. They were the ANC just as Madiba was the ANC. How do we not sit under the colour and flag of the ANC when we bury Uncle Nelson Mandela? He was the living symbol and face of the struggle because he was ANC. He was President of our country because he was ANC President. He went to jail for 27 years because he was ANC, and he stood by the ANC when the boers offered to release him early. He refused to be released and betray the ANC. If he hadn’t been jailed he would have been President of the ANC from 1967 when Chief Albert Luthuli died. My father, Oliver Tambo, would not have been President of the ANC. I believe there was talk of making Nelson Mandela President of the ANC even though he was in jail. ANC! ANC! This is about Nelson Mandela, the leader of the ANC; the President of the ANC. And not an ANC flag adorning that stadium?
Instead of singing the embarrassing boos away, or joining the singing and dancing of the people in the stands, or taking over the leading of the people in struggle songs, which only made sense because it was what the people had come to do, the Deputy, Deputy President, Mr Ramaphosa told the people off. He told them off like they were disorderly middle school children. He told the people that they were ‘ill-disciplined’. He told them off in English. He told them off at length – in front of the entire world. And then he told them, in isiZulu, that they were embarrassing the President, as if they didn’t know that; as if that wasn’t what they intended, as if the isiZulu wasn’t going to be interpreted for the benefit of every person in the world. He didn’t say, “This is no way to celebrate Madiba; remember why we are here”, he didn’t deflect the booing with song, or celebration, requiem, or Amandla! He said, “Not in front of our foreign guests”.
I’ve heard it said, ‘When people don’t have reason, they bully’. Police were dispatched into the stands to ‘watch’ the crowd and ‘escort’ out anyone who gave a sound of a boo, a struggle song or an Amandla. Some government minsters went through the stands telling people to be quiet, to stop singing. People were celebrating one of the most outstanding leaders of the ANC, and the ANC members were shut down? They were shut down, and a dragoon of storm troopers was sent to enforce the shutting down.
When the President finally got up to speak the booing began again. It no longer surprised me. It did disappoint me. I’m sure our guests would have much preferred to see us being the celebratory us. We sing celebratory songs and requiem so beautifully. Senzeni Na? Senzeni na? Senzeni na? Sinzeni na! Sono sethu, ubumnyama? Sono sethu yinyaniso? Sibulawayo. Mayibuye i Africa. This is where our nation comes from. Apartheid is over because of Madiba, and those he led in MK, and those with whom he was incarcerated on Robben Island, and those who mobilised in the streets, and those who were forced into exile . This song was always sung to mourn when a cadre fell. Madiba was one of our leaders and most brave cadre. We should sing!
We’re beautiful when we’re ourselves and we sing to celebrate or mourn, and we toy toy, and we celebrate our victory over apartheid. We should forever celebrate our victory over apartheid and those who led us to that victory. It is something worth celebrating. We must celebrate without shame. We should not hide. We must celebrate Madiba with both mourning and victory because he paid a huge price to bring us to victory. We are here and free to celebrate Madiba because of the price he paid for us. As the wise ones say, “Our Freedom was not free!” Surely they remember the days when funerals were held with security police breathing down their necks and police caspers standing by and tear gas disrupting the proceedings. Of course! They remember better than me. They were there. Those who died, died for us. Our President is marvellous when he leads the people in song. I was surprised that he didn’t do that. The singing of Senzeni Na, led by Msholozi would have been emotive, stirring, graceful, beautiful.
Why are people booing the President? You can’t just be angry that they are booing. You have to ask why. I thought maybe, if it wasn’t about the lack of ANC in the programme, people were expressing their unhappiness about the perennial issues and challenges that daily haunt us. Challenges of lack of service delivery and the inefficiencies of the health, education, welfare, employment, housing, and etcetera departments. Then there’s Marikana and Nkandla and Tatana, and rape stats, and e-tolls and etcetera. Maybe they saw this as a perfect chance to express displeasure at the fact that our government leaders provide extravagantly for themselves while the people are still suffering. People said it’s wrong to do that on this day because this day is about Madiba. Yes it was a day about Madiba, the same Madiba who fought to give the people freedom and democracy. He didn’t fight to give us a tyrannical, selfish, self-serving, dictatorship. The people exercised the right that Nelson Mandela fought to give them. The right to freedom of expression. How better to honour him than by freely expressing?
When you slap, starve, dishonour, deprive, steel from and kill people, how do you complain that they expose you? What do you expect to happen? How do you complain that they retaliate? It’s their duty to do so. They must not be silent. Our parents in the ANC exposed the evils of apartheid to the world. It was their duty. Our President, JZ is one such hero. We are the children of that ANC. It is in our blood to oppose oppression. Starvation, homelessness, lack of education, unemployment, deprivation of any kind is oppression. I suggested to some of those sitting around me that perhaps that was it. They said, “No, this is not the time. There must be order.” But, the reality was that the crowd was not concerned with order, even at this inapropriate time.
My other question was, ‘Were the people embarrassing the country’? Are we not perennially embarrassed? Is it not embarrassing that there is such homelessness and poverty in South Africa, yet R250 million of the tax payers money went to build Nkandla? Is it not embarrassing that the miners at Marikana were shot, killed, mowed down by our democratically elected government’s Police Service? Is it not embarrassing that the rape stats are higher than anywhere in the world? Is it not embarassing that this far into our democracy the government departments still suffer from such enormous inefficiencies. Is a little booing more embarrassing than that which precipitated the booing? And why not today? Why not now? The world is always watching. Always! Our embarrassments are not news. The world already knows of our embarassments. Is it not embarrassing that the world knows of our journey from victory to embarrassments? I understand and agree that we were honouring Madiba that day. I though it unfortnate that the people chose to interrupt the honouring of Madiba. But, evidently not everyone wanted to honour him the way the President and Deputy, Deputy President wanted him honoured.
Amandla! Awethu! Those are words that formed us. I had expected to hear those words often. I had expected to see a stadium filled with MK soldiers, and the ANC women’s league, and ANC youth league and cadres and choirs and children. Did Mum Winnie not want to mourn with the ANC and the MK veterans? She is a mother of the ANC. Though now ex, this was her husband. She still carries his name. Surely she would have wanted Amandlas and Awethus.
Before the end of the memorial the stadium was empty. While JZ spoke, the stadium was emptying. When the ten or so MK soldiers finally came onto the field the stadium was almost empty. There were more foreign dignitaries than MK veterans visible at Madiba’s memorial.
“Long live the spirit of Comrade Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela! Long Live!” How come no one said that?