Day belonged to the people
Sometimes, even if you’re privileged enough to have a front-row seat to history, it is still better to move up, way up, to the upper deck.
Welcome to section 529 at FNB Stadium, where a day to honour Nelson Mandela belonged to the people and nowhere were the people expressing their ownership of their day more loudly and proudly than in a section that was swaying in unison in utter celebration hours before a word was uttered from any podium.
Here they shared their sandwich, their juice and their memories of anti-apartheid activist days.
They brought you in as a friend, because on this day in Johannesburg, with the world watching, those in the stadium embraced everyone as a friend, black or white, South African or jet-lagged visitor.
They chanted, they danced, they pumped their fists in the air and they led a stadium of 70,000 in an endless rendition Mandela-yo, My President. And I defy anyone not to rise and at least start swaying with the crowd by the third go round.
They delivered an instant verdict on the state of international and domestic politics from their vantage point — they booed and made the international soccer sign for a substitution when their president, Jacob Zuma, appeared on the big screen, they screamed wildly for Barack Obama, they even cheered Stephen Harper, not so much because he was Harper, but he had that look of a rather vaguely familiar leader who must have come a long way to honour their late leader.
Here they will tell you that Johannesburg was given no respite from a driving rain Tuesday because the gods were mourning.
It’s as if they expected it, wouldn’t have it any other way.
The cold rain may have kept some home. It merely forced tens of thousands of others to move to the concourse, where they chanted political slogans and danced to Mandela chants for hours.
“It is a sign the king has passed on,” said Hasani Muhanyi.
In 529, Jody Moothee, a young realtor from El Dorado Park in Soweto, will tell you that Mandela is “second best, only after Jesus, he is a saint on Earth.’’
He will tell you he was only six when Mandela was released from 27 years of often brutal captivity, but that he learned of the great man at the feet of his own father, an anti-apartheid activist. When his father Dees returns with hot coffee, he will spin non-stop yarns of those days, speak with a reverence of his homeland and, within 15 minutes, the three of you are like family.
Dees Moothee was born in 1961, a Soweto student in 1976 at a time of violent uprising, a member of a group called XStop, which fought to bring blacks into the core of Johannesburg. He was imprisoned sporadically for his activism.
“Two months here, three months there, nothing big. You’re in, then you’re out, you know how it goes,” he says.
He sees a much more hopeful South Africa now, one he feels should be perpetually governed by the ANC because that is the only way his son’s generation and the generation after that will make progress.
The large crowd heard from U.S. President Obama, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Cuban President Raul Castro.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was given a rapturous ovation, Zuma was abused by the crowd all day long and Winnie Mandela, shown on the scoreboard, drew fevered cheers.
Prime Minister Harper led a delegation that included former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell, but Harper was not invited to speak: those at the podium had been chosen to represent regions.
In all, there were 91 heads of government or state in attendance, along with the likes of Bono, Oprah and South African star Charlize Theron, who still goes by two names.
One image that will last from this event — a quick handshake between Obama and Castro.
Obama electrified the crowd when he told them Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”
But he also said there are leaders today who publicly embrace Mandela’s message of freedom but brook no dissent at home.
Fact was, with the exception of Obama, many celebrants largely ignored the leaders and snake-danced through damp corridors.
Hours before the first words ushered in the program, 45 minutes late, they sang and swayed, danced and pumped their fists in the air in unison, shouting “Vive Mandela.”
It was a day for the locals to smile and offer a sincere, “thanks for coming,” when you stop to chat, as if you had taken time to honour an elderly relative, and that’s how it often felt at the stadium on Tuesday.
In the concourse, I encountered Tebogo Ditsele, a member of the ANC youth wing. More accurately, he encountered me.
He draped a Mandela flag around my shoulder and asked that our picture be taken together.
“This is the new South Africa, white and black together,” he told me as we embraced.
When proffered the print by one of the gang of photographers who inhabit this stadium on game day or memorial day, he said, “I will have this framed.”
It seems cheesy to even write that.
Except, of course, it happened on a rainy, chilly day when a man who made things like that happen was being remembered.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.