/ 10 December 2013

Crowd takes the lead at Mandela memorial

Crowds sang and danced at Nelson Mandela's national memorial service
Crowds sang and danced at Nelson Mandela's national memorial service

The part of the crowd that clustered close to the pitch under many umbrellas (instruments originally banned from the FNB Stadium, but that policy was reversed in the face of cold, penetrating rain on Tuesday morning), were perhaps too busy trying to peer over one another's rain protection.

The middle section of the stadium, a ring between the good views and the nose-bleeder seats, kept to their chairs; the sections were a little small for a critical mass of the opinionated and loud to build up.

But at the top of FNB Stadium, trouble brewed. It was unexpected, but evident the second President Jacob Zuma's image was first flashed onto screens inside the stadium as he arrived. A small but loud section of the crowd booed, and made the soccer substitution signal – the very same signal that heralded Zuma's victory over Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane.

This, it seemed suddenly, was going to be a political event mediated through the two big screens at either end of the stadium.

And so it was.

The internal cameras found a boisterous group of Economic Freedom Fighters, in their trademark red. They redoubled their volume, while opposite them ANC supporters booed them just as loudly.

Polite applause
Former president Thabo Mbeki got a rapturous welcome, while FW de Klerk was politely applauded. Zuma drew more boos, not least of all when he stood up to make his keynote address. Barack Obama nearly brought the house down, and even Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe proved pretty popular.

Meanwhile, around the world, foreign audiences were asking the perhaps obvious question: is this because Zuma is being compared to Nelson Mandela, and doesn't measure up? Explaining the internal politics of the ANC, the nature of the disaffection of Gauteng ANC supporters with the outcome of the Mangaung conference, was a little too complex in the moment, so often they were simply told: yes, not everyone likes Zuma.

Which only confused them all the more when Zuma was politely allowed to finish his address, and even got a decent round of cheering at the end.

It was not joint programme manager Cyril Ramaphosa's reprimands from the stage that achieved that turnaround, however. Several ANC officials, including national leaders, were quickly dispatched to the far reaches of the stadium to preach peace and tolerance, or at the very least silence in the name of respect for Mandela.

Whether the many foreign dignitaries had a sense that the crowd, as representing the people of South Africa, respected Mandela, is not clear. Many were left confused as their speeches had to compete with the sound of boisterous singing. Others looked around a stadium that never filled much past the two-thirds mark, clearly concerned at what the absence may signify.

Empty stadium
The singing, of course, is simply how South Africans celebrate a life well lived – especially when stuck in a stadium for too many hours, in the cold rain, and especially when subjected to stadium-quality sound that made nonsense of most speeches, even those not boring to begin with.

The unexpectedly empty stadium, on the other hand, seemed to be caused by a combination of transportation trouble, incorrect information, and the simple fact that economic factors – not least of all the need to be at work – came into play.

But the sentiment of the day was not expressed in the eloquent words from many worthies, or the number of people who kept their seats for more than eight hours to provide a respectable backdrop. It was seen in the first chorus of Shosholoza on a train platform at 5.15am, and in the cries  of "Viva Madiba, viva!" as people drifted from the stadium later in the afternoon.

For all the action and excitement, more than 50 000 people started the day eager to celebrate Mandela's life, and they left feeling they had done so.