The morning of the Mandela Memorial, our alarm woke us at the ungodly hour of 2:30am. We had been warned of massive crowds, road closures, and major police presence between our neighborhood and the FNB Stadium, so we wanted to get the earliest start possible. In convoy with a large group of Carolyn’s friends, we drove to the stadium. We were, of course, turned away at the stadium and instructed to park 5K away at a petrol station. Leaving the warmth of the car behind and beginning our trek back toward the stadium in the dark, we were almost plowed down by a large bus, which miraculously stopped and welcomed us aboard.
We all gleefully boarded the bus, whose driver assured us he was heading for the stadium. So we were surprised when we cruised directly past the stadium entrance and on toward Soweto. At this point, we were counting our lucky stars that we were with a large group of locals, who immediately began interrogating the bus driver about our actual destination. As it turns out, we were headed for the bus depot on the far side of the stadium. Not wanting to disembark the bus on a major highway, we were “along for the ride” for the next 30 minutes. Eventually we found ourselves deposited once again on the dark streets, this time 3K from the stadium. Kicking ourselves for losing 30 minutes and only gaining a paltry 2K, we power-walked en masse toward the stadium, determined to be at the front of the line and thus, secure our seats inside the stadium.
We were once again surprised when we reached the stadium entrance and found only about 300 people waiting outside, far fewer than the media had predicted. We had an entire entrance to the stadium to ourselves. As we waited the 2 hours for the gates to open, we were treated to a dim, watery sunrise while the rain continued to pelt down.
Despite the bleak weather, the crowd was incredibly upbeat and energetic. There was singing, dancing, and chanting at each entrance. The gates were scheduled to open at 6am, but it came and went with no sign of activity. We joked that there was probably a huge ring of keys and the people in charge of opening the stadium didn't know which to use to open each gate, and thus the delay. As it turns out, our jokes were right on the money. By about 7, some poor schmuck was making his way to each gate with the aforementioned large key ring, trying keys until he found the one that liberated the crowd. TIA.
Once freed from our holding pen, we dashed into the stadium to find the best possible seats-- our judgment was based on a proprietary "covered from the rain" to "close to the stage (but not behind)" ratio. Having secured seats (right below Bono, Charlize Theron, F.W. de Klerk, and the current and former captains of the Springboks), we once again began dancing, singing, and chanting. We wandered the stadium in small packs, seeing the scene. It was a VERY interesting scene. The feelings across the board were of unity and joy. It seemed that everyone had gathered to remember and celebrate Madiba's life loudly, with gusto. There were drum solos, breakout dance groups, roving bands of chanters, gleeful photo ops, and above all, a sense of energetic cohesiveness throughout the crowd. People went out of their way to teach us (the American interlopers) the chants and songs, and to explain what each was about. They put their arms around us and posed for photos. It was a real rush to be there and feel the energy of the crowd as it grew throughout the morning.
And then the official program began. And man, did whoever organize it mis-interpret the feelings of the crowd. With a few notable exceptions, the speeches from various world leaders felt canned and dry. That hardly mattered though, as we could barely hear them due to the mediocre (at best) A/V setup. It was marginally easier to hear when the video stream was on, but it cut out periodically throughout the program. We later read that the camera blackouts were due to the "Zuma Booing"-- every time Zuma was on camera, parts of the crowd erupted in boos.
The standout speech was, as you probably all know by now, Obama's. It was everything we love about his best speeches-- uplifting, strong, impassioned, and emotive. It stood in stark contrast to the majority of the other speeches. And, in an unprecedented move, the entire stadium stood silently throughout his speech, so everyone could catch every word.
There were a few other speeches deserving of mention-- Mandela's grandchildren gave touching and articulate tributes. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Castro's speech. Ban ki-moon, though hard to hear, was also a crowd favorite.
In the end though, it just felt as though the organizers had missed what it was all about. We were there to celebrate. We wanted music, personal memories of and moving tributes to Mandela-- the man, the leader, the father, the philosopher, the inspiration. At the end of the day, it just didn't feel like what happened on stage reflected the will and energy of the gathered crowds.
And we didn't even know about the fake interpreter!
But the bottom line is, it was an incredibly cool scene, and a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. We wouldn't have been anywhere else.