Glitterati celebrate a fairytale ending

It was a fairytale ending, which suited the strange story of Nelson Mandela, the herdboy who became a convict and then the president.

The moment for which he seems to have been born 75 years ago finally arrived when, with the sun shining on the Bible in front of him and tons of bullet-proof glass protecting his back, he began the incantation: — “In the presence of those assembled here, and in full realisation the high calling I assume as president in the service of the Republic of South Africa…”

It was 12.16pm when he started speaking, which was a little embarrassing, because he was meant to become the president in the morning. But by the time the clock-tower had signalled the noon-day hour with the Westminster chimes of a colonial past, the dignitaries assembled from around the globe were beginning to get used to the element of informality. It was a day of contrasts encapsulated in the setting: the grandiose Union Buildings – neo-classical in style, a mix of Italian and English Renaissance with a dash of Cape Dutch — hacked into the African hillside of Meintjieskop.

When Sir Herbert Baker designed the building early this century, it was intended to be a symbol of unity, marking the coming together of the British colonies and the defeated Boer republics — its two wings representing an equal marriage between English and Afrikaans. But for all that, it has never hosted a union like Tuesdays.

Winnie Mandela was among the first of the glitterati to arrive, resplendent in a long, green silk dress — a creation that her personal publicist had boasted would “astonish South Africa”. It was a poignant instant, as the woman for whom the occasion should have been her crowning moment was gestured towards the seats of lesser dignitaries. But, in response to some unseen summons she suddenly materialized with her family on the podium.

The TV announcer, a note of disapproval in his voice, assured the country that the one-time Mother of the Nation did not belong there, and would shortly be returning to her proper place. But Mandela was unexpectedly led to a position nine seats away from the leather-covered throne awaiting her estranged husband.

Yasser Arafat was another early arrival, bustling to the 13th row demanded by protocol of a not-quite head of state. A clutch of overweight bodyguards in grey suits glared at the barrels of telephoto lenses hanging dangerously from a photographers’ rampart over the head of their charge. The Duke of Edinburgh, clutching a Panama hat, came striding up the stairs trailed by a Foreign Office entourage. He seemed bemused as he was corralled off into a corner in the fourth row.

But as Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Ron Brown, Jesse Jackson and the rest of the United States contingent were crowded through to the same row, their bodyguards glared indignantly with the realisation that the worlds leaders had not been allocated enough chairs to go round.

Enthusiastic chants of “Castro, Castro” from South African Communist Party MPs heralded the grandest looking figure of the day. The Cuban leader looked even grander bereft of cigar and forage cap, his uniform and silver hair sparkling imposingly in the sun. And so the procession continued and a game of musical chairs went on … Ex-King Constantine Jerry Rawlings, Mary Robinson, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kenneth Kaunda, the Prince of Austurias, Danielle Mitterrand, Joaquim Chissana, Benazir Bhutto, Sam Nujoma, Prince Willem Alexander of Orange, Mario Soares, Julius Nyerere.

The Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, over-looked on the left embankment, was whisked front-right. Fidel, landing up deliciously close to the Americans on the right embankment, was whisked to safer ground front-left. Up on the podium, meanwhile, the outgoing president and incoming second deputy president FW de Klerk, had arrived to the first round of international applause — a celebration of the simple comment he had made as he emerged from his car: “We have achieved what we set out to achieve.”

He was followed by the waving first deputy president, Thabo Mbeki before a roar from some 40 000 people gathered on the lawns below announced the arrival of the one-time herdboy. Mandela had a party-going air about him as the security form generals led him up the stairs to meet the chief justice.

He beamed with paternal pride as he walked past his daughter, Princess Zeni Dhlamini who is married into the Swazi royal family and standing in as First Lady. Praise singers held the microphones in a paroxysm of adulation. Then, one hour and eight minutes later than scheduled, the clock ticked on to the historic moment.

“— I, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, do hereby swear to be faithful to the Republic of South Africa, and to solemnly and sincerely promise at all times…”

Towards the end of his inaugural speech, the 4 000 assembled VIPs rose spontaneously to their feet for an ovation in a moment of genuine emotion as President Mandela declared: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”

As the cheering died away, Mandela’s personal aide, Barbara Masekela — the sister of the jazz trumpeter Hugh, and Tuesday’s mistress of ceremonies – looked momentarily lost. But the generals seized the lead, moving to the heavily armoured glass at the back of the podium and staring pointedly at the distant hills of the Muckleneuk Ridge.

Out of the silence grew a thunder, as over the hills came helicopter gunships, jet trainers, supersonic fighters and acrobatic squadrons trailing the colours of the new South African flag in dedication to their first black, and surely greatest, commander-in-chief.

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