Nelson Mandela's memorial service: Farewell Madiba

By Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is the Herald's former chief reporter and current editor of Hawke's Bay Today. He travelled to his home country to attend Nelson Mandela's memorial service.
People sing songs during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP
People sing songs during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP

Nelson Mandela the peacemaker has achieved something in his death that had not been seen before.

A United States President shook hands with a President of Cuba.

After giving a powerful speech in which he said Mandela "makes me want to be a better person", President Barack Obama turned around and shook the hand of President Raul Castro of Cuba.

It was a brief moment, but one which would have made Madiba smile.

In doing this, Mr Obama showed himself to be a statesman in the mould of the very man he was paying tribute to. Mr Obama's address at the giant FNB stadium on a cold and blustery day was head and shoulders above any others, including that of beleaguered South African President Jacob Zuma. Mr Obama called Mandela a "giant of history" and then made a big stride in reaching out to Cuba which has had a tense relationship with the United States for decades.

History had already been made by nearly 100 leaders from around the world attending the memorial service to mark Mandela's passing.

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In a ceremony that lasted nearly five hours, Mandela's life and greatness was praised in song and speech. Thousands of people walked and queued to take their place in one of history's moments.

However, internal politics threatened to derail proceedings, with a noisy section of the crowd booing Mr Zuma when he arrived and then again when his image showed up on the giant screens in the stadium. Mr Zuma is facing pressure from a breakaway faction and his controversial plans to put e-tolls on Johannesburg's motorway network and his decision to spend hundreds of millions of Rand to build his family compound in KwaZulu Natal.

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The booing of the President was in stark contrast to the cheers reserved for Mr Obama, former President Thabo Mbeki and Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Even Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was cheered. The booing stopped after master of ceremonies and African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa spoke sternly to the crowd. By then the monitors in the stadium had been turned off.

After the ceremony, media and other sections of the crowd were scathing about the inappropriate behaviour of a small group of people.

A man holds up an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela at the memorial service at the stadium in Soweto. Photo / AP
A man holds up an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela at the memorial service at the stadium in Soweto. Photo / AP

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the memorial service had become very politicised. He said it was not the best platform for people to voice their dissatisfaction with President Zuma.

In his speech, Mr Zuma announced that the amphitheatre at the Union Buildings in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of South Africa would be renamed in his honour. The amphitheatre, in the seat of government, will also be the place Mandela lays in state until his casket is taken to the small Transkei village of Qunu, where he will be buried with his ancestors.

With security very tight at the memorial service, Prime Minister John Key was initially told he was only able to take one person with him. In a show of diplomacy and national unity, he chose David Cunliffe. However, it turned out the entire New Zealand delegation was permitted to go in the end. Maori Party MP Pita Sharples was caught by television cameras arriving at the stadium. Mr Key is expected to pay his respects to Mandela's casket today.

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