The first sign that something was off at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday came when the crowd of 60,000 people started booing en masse—a low, bovine sound that shook the Soweto stadium and seemed terribly at odds with the patient, forgiving man who brought them here.
They were not booing Mandela; they were booing the current president, Jacob Zuma, who has recently been embroiled in a major corruption scandal.
It was weird. It was awkward. And it was live on international television.
There came one welcome respite—a soaring yet intimate eulogy delivered masterfully by U.S. President Barack Obama, who reminded the crowd why they had come to pay respects to Mandela.
But in a way that many of us who live and work here know, the crowd’s reaction to the ceremony and the figures who led it laid bare—live, to the entire world—the many deep wounds and contradictions that plague this nation.
South Africans like to call Mandela “Tata,” or father, and often behave as if he is an actual family member. But many are wont to forget that the forgiving, grandfatherly figure known for his love of children and his passion for protecting the powerless was, at his core, a politician. It seems impossible, somehow, that talk of Mandela won’t eventually turn to politics, as it has in recent days, as growing numbers of South Africans have expressed confusion over whom to vote for now that he is gone.
South Africans love to extol Mandela as a man of peace, of forgiveness. Yet he was also the man who decided that the African National Congress, then a banned party, should seek a violent solution to ending the apartheid regime.
And Mandela preached unity and lovingly described this ethnically diverse country as a rainbow nation—yet when the stadium stood to sing the country’s multilingual national anthem, which is a mix of Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English, his own grandchildren sat with stony faces, refusing to sing the verses in Afrikaans, the language associated with the architects of apartheid.
But back to the booing, which was also accompanied, comically, by the rotating hand gesture used in soccer to indicate a player substitution—and which reared its head every time Zuma was mentioned or put on-screen.
Braam Hanekom, a national task team member of the African National Congress Youth League, said he believed it was a political stunt—orchestrated by whom, he could not say, though he noted that a new party led by firebrand politician and former Youth League President Julius Malema was fond of causing trouble at public events.
“You don’t attend a state funeral honoring Nelson Mandela and boo the state president,” Hanekom said. “It’s disrespectful, it’s embarrassing for the country; it’s not a time for cheap politics.”
I tried to find the culprits myself, by asking a number of black-bereted young men—berets are the headgear of choice for South African political activists—who had come to the stadium. In an event where nearly every man, woman and child was willing, even eager, to talk to journalists, these clumps of political activists were unusually silent.
"It wasn't us,” said a young man in a group of young men in jaunty berets. “We have discipline."
But whoever was behind it, they may have a point.
Corruption has ripped through the ANC like a tornado, toppling bigwig after bigwig. Unemployment stands at 26 percent. And while a recent study by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation noted that race is less important to South Africans than class is, the authors also noted that the poorest of the poor are still entirely black. The latest census verifies that inequality: The average black household earns one-sixth what the average white household does. I don’t know why we all thought that the people of South Africa would magically put those concerns, very real concerns with which they live, aside for one day.
Perhaps South Africans are too close to the issue, which is why, in a strange twist, the man who encouraged them to look at the big picture was not President Zuma, but President Obama. The American president, who arrived several hours late, neatly and eloquently brought home why Mandela was important. And coming from a fellow politician, it had nothing to do with politics.
“Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me,” he said. “It woke me up to my responsibilities—to others, and to myself—and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest, when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength—for his largeness of spirit—somewhere inside ourselves.”
The stadium reacted to that all right, with an eruption of cheers.
Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for six years and previously covered Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter.