Posted on December 12, 2013

Nelson Mandela Memorial: Empty Seats Embarrass South Africa

Neil Tweedie, Telegraph (London), December 10, 2013

It was supposed to be standing room only, but the memorial service held to honour the life of Nelson Mandela was remarkable for the large number of South Africans who failed to turn up.

Tens of thousands of seats in the venue, the FNB football stadium in Johannesburg, remained empty throughout five hours of eulogy. Even at the height of the service, only two thirds of seats were taken, a major embarrassment for the government of South Africa, which had billed it as the centrepiece of a week of events marking the death of Mandela.

Soon after the turnstiles to the 95,000-seater stadium were unlocked at 6am, it became clear that the flood of people expected by organisers would be less than torrential. With the 11am start of the ceremony approaching, huge swathes of the stadium were still empty, a point emphasised by the bright orange colour of the seats.

The poor attendance figure was blamed on a combination of factors, including unusually cold and wet weather, and disruption to travel caused by security road blocks on the approaches to the stadium. But the primary responsibility was laid at the feet of Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, who had refused to have the day declared a national holiday. People in Johannesburg trying to get to work were faced with a severe shortage of buses, the vehicles having been commandeered for shuttle services to and from the stadium.

The memorial service was also marked by a noticeable lack of white participants, denting South Africa’s claim to be a fully integrated ‘Rainbow Nation’, at ease with itself two decades after the fall of apartheid.

Tessa Stovie, one of the few white members of the audience, said: “It’s probably the rain more than anything but a lot of people have found it impossible to get time off, which is a shame.”

People leaving the stadium were shivering as they left.

“It’s really cold and we’re not used to it,” said Grace Zwane, 39, a quality controller. Swazi Tshabalala, 37, agreed that the weather was cause of empty seats. “We enjoyed it anyway,” he said.

“It was brilliant apart from the rain,” said Mlungisi Lamola, 21, a student. “There was an energy from the crowd that was fantastic.”

All expressed their adoration for President Barack Obama, citing his speech as the highlight of the day. “He reminds us of Madiba [Mandela],” said Viola Maliti, 37, a judge’s secretary. “He may not have done much for Africa yet but there’s still time.”

Thato Makapa, 36, summed up the reason for the booing and jeering that bedevilled President Zuma during the event.

“Corruption,” he said. “How can he stand on a podium and talk about our Madiba?”