On late Thursday afternoon I drove through pouring rain to Wits University’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The rain fell in sheets across the road and hailstones pinged off my car’s bonnet. When I arrived on campus, I had to navigate paths and walkways which had become ankle-deep, swiftly running streams. I had to wring the water out of the pair of ballet flats I was wearing.
The storm was not particularly unusual for early December. Johannesburg receives most of its annual rainfall during the summer, transforming the city’s dusty, brown winter ugliness into a riot of purple and green leaves and flowers in October and November. But in some ways this week’s rain has been remarkable.
On Tuesday, it rained steadily for almost twenty-four hours. This would be entirely normal in Cape Town in the depths of winter, but is almost unheard-of in a Johannesburg nearing midsummer. While some suggested that the heavens were weeping for Madiba, others, like Cyril Ramaphosa at the official memorial service in Soweto, argued that the rain signalled the afterlife’s preparation for Mandela’s arrival. As a shop assistant at my local Pick ‘n Pay remarked, if this was true, then we should expect floods on Sunday.
The rain was not the only unplanned, ungovernable feature of Tuesday’s service: chaotic public transport; world leaders taking selfies at inappropriate moments; a bizarre, and apparently criminal, sign language interpreter; and an audience who booed the State President. As Ramaphosa and, later, Archbishop Tutu tried to threaten and cajole the audience into silence, the pouring, soaking rain seemed to re-emphasise the futility of their efforts: as they could not stop the clouds, so they could not stop the South Africans assembled in FNB stadium.
Several writers have pointed out that the official events organised to mourn Mandela’s death have been at odds to the ways in which South Africans have been celebrating his life. The long speeches and tedium of Tuesday’s events contrasted with the singing and dancing at Mandela’s homes in Houghton and Soweto. The time allowed to celebrities – like Bono – to mourn at Mandela’s coffin as he lay in state at the Union Buildings was deeply resented by the many thousands who were denied access because of overcrowding.
Although delayed by the storm, the Wits memorial managed a balance of song and joy, of commemoration, and pointed discussion of how Mandela’s own commitment to public service – his decision not to run for a second term as president – contrasts with the venal, corrupt behaviour of many present office bearers in his own party. Its centrepiece was a conversation between Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke. It was a reminder of the degree of the suffering that these – and many others – endured during the struggle.
It demonstrated that the official memorialising of Mandela has profoundly missed the point: that the best way of paying tribute to Mandela and his generation is to work hard at making South Africa more free. And to think more carefully about what it means to be free. Lira, who performed at the end of the service, put this particularly eloquently: ‘My generation was taught to survive the struggle,’ she said. ‘But we were not taught to be free. We had to work that out for ourselves.’
I think it was partly this tension between differing definitions of freedom – which understand Mandela and his legacy in occasionally divergent ways – which contributed to the standoff between citizenry and state on Tuesday. Thinking about this past week, I realise that my most significant moments of reflection on, and commemoration of, Mandela’s legacy have been far away from official acts of remembrance: with throngs of people outside his Houghton home; lighting prayer lanterns with friends in Melville, late at night and after a long dinner; at tea with colleagues to celebrate the end of the year; listening to three struggle heroes discuss the future of the country.
These acts made sense to my understanding of what it means to be free in post-apartheid South Africa. That nearly twenty years after the transition to democracy, we’re still arguing and debating what it is to be free – and any attempt to silence this is like trying to stop the rain.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.