Writer and broadcaster

Obama finds his voice with a magnificent tribute to Mandela. The Week.

AS THE RAIN blurred the camera lenses in Soweto’s FNB football stadium, Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the African National Congress, took to the podium to apologise for it. “But in our African tradition,” he explained, “when it rains when you are buried, it means that your Gods are welcoming you and the gates of heaven are opening.”

Although Nelson Mandela wasn’t being buried yet – that happens on Sunday in Qunu where he grew up – this was his memorial service to which seemingly every single political leader in the world had been invited.

The rain, and the fact that this hadn’t been declared a national holiday, meant not everyone who wanted to could attend. Some had to get back to work and left after President Barack Obama’s speech. Others had walked through the night to get to the stadium to pay tribute to their former president.

However, if you were an American president – current, former or perhaps future – you had Air Force One to travel in. The Bushes, Clintons and Obamas shared the one-bedroomed aircraft for the 16-hour flight. Unfortunately, road traffic on landing meant they turned up rather late for the memorial and unfortunately for Ramaphosa, who was talking at the time, Obama’s rock-star-like arrival rather distracted from what he was saying.

Still, it stopped people boo-ing, at, in turns, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and current South African president Jacob Zuma (who has been accused of spending £12m of taxpayer’s money on refurbishments to his private home).

I’m not sure a football stadium was the best place for such a gathering. Many of the people who spoke were not used to public speaking, and many words were lost because the acoustics were so bad. Also, the astons – those things at the bottom of the TV screen that tell you who everyone is – were sadly lacking for the most part. The annoying gran in my head kept asking, “Who’s that then?”

I really wanted to hear what Andrew Mlangeni, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island, had to say, but it was almost impossible. The emotion, however, was clear to read on his face.

In the crowd, there were elements of it being one big, rather badly organised party. I don’t think that’s wrong for a memorial. I don’t think it’s wrong for people to boo, either, if they want to. Ramaphosa called for calm and respect more than once (because people kept booing Zuma’s face on screen). The atmosphere seemed frisky, up for grabs, as if it could go either way.

And then Obama took to the podium and gave what was probably the speech of his life. All the loose threads that were left hanging, or hinted at, by others, all the words half said or swallowed by the unsympathetic acoustics, they were all pulled together by Obama, deftly and with just the right hint of anger, confidence and defiance. It was magnificent. I didn’t know if I wanted to shag him, be American or have his brain. Very probably all three.

Obama has had much criticism at home recently, over Obamacare, that he plays too much golf, that he doesn’t seem to care about his job anymore. And yet here he was, reminding everyone that he does, very much, care. He took us through Mandela’s early life – born during World War I, a boy “raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe”.

He went on to say that Mandela taught us the “power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t.”

And then, a very obvious dig at other world leaders: “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

Many people left after this, as if this were the defining moment of the memorial.

After Cuba’s leader, Raul Castro (with whom Obama shook hands earlier), it was Zuma’s turn to take the stand. The booing wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. He gave a speech. A very long speech that many, including myself, struggled to stay on top of, which was a shame as he seemed at pains to include every aspect of Mandela’s life and it seemed respectful to listen.

In the background you could see George Bush swinging in his chair, one foot on his knee as if he were watching a soccer game. Obama was being clapped on the shoulder. And I realised that whereas Zuma was reading a speech, Obama had made one.


First published in The Week, on 10th December 2013.