I have really been struggling with feeling numb about Nelson Mandela’s physical death. Part of that is because I have felt for months now that his spirit had already gone and that it was just his body which remained–I presume kept alive artificially. I had therefore already mourned in my own personal way. Now, I was seeking the comfort that can come from feeling part of something bigger than myself. For me that is not religion but the sense of community that you can feel when surrounded by people that have some shared political/social/emotional beliefs and ideas. I attended enough mass and minor meetings as a child so that although I was never an active member of the community of struggle activists the rituals and theatre of that struggle shaped how I celebrate, mourn and feel the things that others might get from religion.
When I first heard that Madiba had died I was close to the Cape Town City Hall so I drove there expecting (more hoping) to find people there to connect with; it was after all the site of his first speech as a free person in 1990. Instead all there was, was a lone cop car parked opposite City Hall. No candles, no flowers, no people.
Disappointed I drove on but returned the next day hoping that the memorial event there would trigger the emotions I had last felt regularly at the many civic events of the early 1990’s: The moments when Mandela and other political prisoners were released from detention, the unbanning of the African National Congress, the first elections, the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first legitimate President.
Later at moments like the memorial service for Phyllis Naidoo – all those events shaped by the United Democratic Front, the ANC, the negotiated transitional government, people who had some shared ideology, beliefs, history and narrative that I could relate to.
Again I left the Parade disappointed and still feeling numb, but hopeful that the official State memorial service at FNB stadium would be the moment I could feel part of mass emotion–a shared feeling–even if mitigated by the TV screen.
Thursday, December 10th, came and went. Instead of feeling sad I got up from my television screen feeling angry and betrayed. The memorial was embarrassing. It felt as if we had been disrespectful to the person Madiba was and to the legacy he had given to us.
The event was a bureaucratic and a political ticking boxes exercise without soul, without gravitas, without theater and without the sense of humanity and community that we as South Africans used to be so good at conjuring. Although I would be amiss to not mention the exception of Archbishop Tutu who tried to get the audience in the stadium to come to order and come together, using his special blend of disciplinarian and joker.
I felt like we had lost our ability to generate theater, the theater of the mass event, by selling out the responsibility of choreographing our moment of national unity to an organization that tendered for the money to organize it and won because it ticked the right boxes on a tender document.
I am not naive enough to think that moments of community unity happened spontaneously. People were organizers, many described themselves as activists, they were cultural and political workers. We had structures that thought about how to orchestrate events, often with limited time and resources but lots of thought, imagination and creativity. We chose the images to put on to posters and t-shirts, we selected speakers that could rouse the crowd, we put on theater performances and had people that had the voices to lead the tone deaf and the talented in song.
So why didn’t we use those people to stage manage one of the most important moments in our country’s history, which was supposed to celebrate the life of one of our most important citizens–why did we put it out to tender to the lowest bidder?
We betrayed his memory by not having images of his life and our shared moments of history being projected onto screens around the stadium.
We let him down by allowing poor speech writers dictate hollow chronologies rather than meaningful messages.
We have sent him off angry by disrespecting the great vocalists of our country who gathered on stage to sing for him and for us but were unable to because they didn’t have microphones or proper sound.
The people booed–maybe because they were disillusioned by our new political leadership. But definitely because they were not held by and swept up into the theatre of the mass moment.
They were not given an event which was choreographed politically and stage managed to hold our imaginations, lift our souls and stir our spirits.
We, the people, were not given the stage to join our voices in song and dance and celebrate together, as we usually do at moments like these.
We allowed our proud tradition of coming together with sound, image and emotion to be taken over–by a company that tendered to provide a service and profit from it.
And I am embarrassed that I let this happen.