Mandela at 90: The world in search of a hero
Well, we were there. Regulars may be thinking that we spend our lives heading off to big rock gigs, but that’s far from the truth. Still, this felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see Mandela on his last visit to the UK and quite possibly his last major public appearance.
The Gig Itself
The concert was great in its own way – could have done without the Sugababes who didn’t seem to manage to be in tune very much – and the remaining half of Queen seemed a curious choice to close out the night. I also just wish Annie Lennox had sung some of her own stuff as well as her impressive, impassioned speech about HIV/AIDS in Africa – and of course it would have been so much better to have had Bono & The Edge in person rather than on the big screen. But for all that, it was a great night.
And we particularly loved the African musicians – one of the most moving moments was the guy Peter Gabriel came on stage to introduce: Emmanuel Jal (right). He was a child soldier in Sudan – and was rescued by an aide worker called Emma McCune – about whom he wrote a song that he sang. (She was an extraordinary figure, an English girl from a private school background who controversially ended up marrying the Sudanese guerilla commander Riek Machar and then was killed in a car crash in Nairobi. All the subject of a fascinating book called Emma’s War.)
There was also a showing from East Africa – Kenyan Suzanna Owiyo and Ugandan BBCool who were both great in their very different ways. Johnny Clegg brought back childhood memories for Rachel and did a great duet with the legendary Joan Baez (although both seemed to battle against technology to be heard). The other South African appearances were great too – especially The Soweto Gospel Choir who backed nearly everyone. Eddy Grant did the old protestors’ favourite of Gimme me hope, Jo’anna. I could go on. But the big highlight was the duet of South African Vusi Mahlasela and American crooner Josh Groban singing Weeping (below).
For those who don’t know it, the song Weeping has a powerful story. Written by Dan Heymann while he was a soldier drafted into the South African apartheid regime army, it poignantly conveys the absurdities and horrors of apartheid in ways that only music can. Mahlasela and Groban have recorded it together with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and you can/should get it from iTunes here – as have the Soweto String Quartet (whose recording was the first i’d heard). Both arrangements brilliantly weave the new South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (=God Bless Africa in Xhosa) into the background.
The Man Himself
But of course the centrepiece was the 90 year old man himself. And he looked frail, unsteady and uncertain, perhaps a little deaf, perhaps short-sighted. Countless performers went on about how good he looked for 90 and that is certainly true. But it was poignant to see Graca Machel gently steer him to the podium and then tell him when to wave, and then in classic African idiom, whisper to him at the end (but caught on the PA) ‘we’re moving now, papa’. It is not without reason that he is commonly regarded now as the world’s favourite grandfather.
And yet, when for those brief moments that he spoke, Hyde Park was silenced. It was crystal clarity, and that voice, so unmistakably Mandela’s, rang out – and the moral authority of a man who has suffered, forgiven and led a nation into peaceful transition, transfixed his audience once again. It was unforgettable – and he is surely right about HIV/AIDS – it is not so much a disease as a human rights issue (especially when there are so many competing interests in the western pharmaceutical industry as well as endemic corruption in African health institutions).
So Mandela is my hero. He is certainly unique – and his impact on the modern world is unmatched. It felt right and proper to honour him.
But there are limits, with which I feel sure he would agree. And when compere June Sarpong got carried away by the moment (or at least I hope that that was the reason) and suddenly described him as ‘the greatest human being who had ever lived’ I balked, and so did a teenage boy standing just behind us. When this lad muttered ‘but what about Jesus?’ I could only agree. The thought was picked up by the Daily Telegraph review the next morning which noted:
20 years after massed superstars gathered at Wembley to demand his release from Robben Island jail, Mandela has evolved into a quasi-Christ figure.
Of course it was a gift for me – because I was preaching on Jesus being the Son of Man who forgives 2 evenings later – and had already decided to take the theme of our contemporary yearning for superheroes. And while Mandela has showed remarkable Christlike qualities, neither he (nor his honoured memory post-mortem) will ever be able to deliver on what we demand from our heroes. For idols never come up with the goods in the end. They simply can’t. And I feel sure that Mandela doesn’t believe any of the hype about himself, and nor do his family. For the they know of what he is made, despite his undeniably great and awesome qualities – and they are merely exploiting (legitimately in my opinion) the currency of his fame and prestige for great good, namely the conquest of HIV/AIDS. Revisionists will appear in decades to come and find all kinds of chinks in his armour, all kinds of skeletons, as they seek to right the excesses of hagiographers. And indeed the better biographies make it clear that he is no saint (Anthony Sampson’s biography is my favourite) but is a human being like the rest of us. Well, no surprises there. And in no sense does this diminish what he has achieved. It should merely prevent us from absurdities and idolatries.
So all in all it was a great night. And we were near enough to get some fantastic photos (which you can see on my Flickr page). My favourite was not actually of the stage at all. The VIPs stand was off to the side, at the top of which was Mandela’s personal ‘booth’. I turned around and took pics of it every now and then, unsure of what would come out or be visible. Imagine my joy the next morning when i sifted through them and found this one. It needed playing around with the exposure a bit and it is not quite in focus. But you can clearly see the great man sharing a joke with our dearly beloved Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. How cool is that?!