Updated 18 December 2013

SA celebrates its greatest man

Ordinary South Africans have responded to the death of Nelson Mandela with dignity and warmth, and we can feel proud of ourselves, says CyberShrink.


Many thousands of ordinary people reacted calmly this week to the death of Nelson Mandela. They were sad and they were proud, and they didn't put a foot wrong.

This was helped by Madiba's gradual withdrawal first from formal then informal politics, then from public life, helping people to remember him at his best, but to get used to the idea of eventually living without him. Instead of a disorienting disaster, as his death could well have been years ago, his still living example was and is orienting, and unifying.

We remember a man with a lovely smile and unlike the usual pompous politicians, he was a humble man, who took great care to present himself as ordinary. I remember him on the occasions when we met as kindly, and genuinely interested in all of us.

I also noticed on each public occasion that rather than appearing on stage in a sudden blaze of glory, he preferred to arrive a bit early, and would walk around shaking hands and thanking the tea-ladies, and the people arranging the chairs, and others who were making the meeting possible. One thought all the more of him, because he didn't seem to think too much of himself. There are very few major figures who show such a natural and comfortable nobility, and make others feel good about themselves.

In contrast to how well our people behaved, the way the State has handled the ceremonial aspects of the process has shown a deep and embarrassing clumsiness. In a typically top-down approach, this was too often seen as a chance for politicians and officials to address the rest of us, who were expected to sit quietly and gratefully and accept everything.

The Rain-Boo nation
And that involved sitting in pouring rain and cold for many hours listening to dull speeches. The glorious booing at the Memorial was one time the people spoke back, registering their presence and their disappointment that the President being shown to them was so very much less than the President we had lost. It was a healthy sign of democracy in action. No politician can assume they must be treated with respect when they are not noticeably and consistently respectful of the people, as Mandela was at all times.

The booing was so loud, it could not have come from a small number of ingrates, and it was clearly strategic, emphasising the rejection of Zuma by cheering almost everyone else. Some of the foreign dignitaries who surely nobody in the crowd could have recognised, were clearly surprised and delighted to receive hearty cheering. Time Magazine could name Zuma as Man of the Jeer. Someone beat me to using the obvious and glorious pun, in describing us on Tuesday as the Rain-Boo Nation.

Ignoring the disabled, yet again
The Lying-in-State was mishandled, and run in such a way as to exclude most disabled and elderly people who might have wished to attend. Yet again our inaccessible Minister for the Disabled ignored her responsibilities, and appears uncaring or simply unaware of the difficulties many of us experience.

Procedures were inept and needlessly complex. It could take someone six hours or more to comply, travelling to a handful of barely publicised venues to queue to undergo a security check, then queue for a special bus to get to the Union Buildings, to join a very long queue, at the end of which one could walk swiftly past the coffin, only to reverse the lengthy procedures to get home.

Hours of access varied unpredictably and were needlessly short. We were told that "in our culture" (whatever happened to the multicultural nation?) the viewing should only be during daylight, but many daylight hours were wasted.

Official estimates seem to claim 60 000 people managed this ordeal before the final day of Friday, so the eventual total number of mourners may be around 100 000 I attended the Lying in State of Winston Churchill while I was in London, and in three days they enabled 321.000 people to file by, without interference or any noticeable security. The Hall was open from very early morning until midnight.

In Pretoria, living near the Union Buildings, we've suffered incessant circling of what appeared to be dozens of police and military helicopters and planes, for no discernible reason. They swooped about, sometimes rattling our windows and roof tiles, and achieving nothing other than to be a general nuisance. One longed for an immense can of fly spray and a very large swatter. There were special facilities for VIPs, who of course are much more equal than the rest of us, and apparently include Mr Malema who seems to have been brought in more easily and comfortably than we common people.

The hallucinating interpreter
While such pseudo-security measures were empty, but expensive, we discover that the sign-language interpreter hired for the Memorial service, used no known variety of sign language, thereby depriving all deaf viewers of any assistance whatever.

The man himself has told various media that he is schizophrenic, was hallucinating greatly during the memorial, hearing voices and seeing angels flying into the arena, and that in the past he has been violent "a lot".

There can have been no competent security checking on such a man, to have allowed him to stand beside dozens of world leaders, waving his arms around, communicating nothing to viewers. Fortunately, though he says he felt he was in a very dangerous situation, he was not violent on this occasion. While news media rapidly discovered all this and more, the Government seems still mystified as to who actually hired this guy and gave him clearance.

Someone in the broadcast team seems to have noticed something wrong here, as after some time the camera focused more closely on the speakers, so we saw only the edge of the translator’s jerky arm. I wonder why they did that.

Self-serving speakers and nobility by association
The memorial programme included too many speakers there to bask in the reflected glory of Mandela. The programme so badly needed a competent editor. Obama spoke sincerely and impressively, but most merely repeated the usual stuff which had already been said so many times. Like "guilt by association", these folks were trying for nobility by association. The religious speakers mainly went on far too long, having been asked to contribute a prayer, not a sermon. At the very end, as chilled and soggy people were streaming out of the venue, a little Minister droned on at ridiculous length, wrapped in his private world, smiling to himself and waving one arm, unaware that nobody was listening.

The real challenge lies ahead. The time has passed when we could leave goodness to Madiba, now we have to do it for ourselves. Instead of praising what he stood for, we need now to stand for it ourselves, and put it into action.


Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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