Nelson Mandela joined a select group of non-Britons who have been honoured by a Service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey which includes Archbishop Luwum of Uganda, Sir Alexander Bustamente Prime Minister of Jamaica, Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia and Sir Seretse Khama, President of Botswana.
As MP Peter Hain said at Nelson Mandela’s moving and dramatic memorial service in Westminster Abbey on Monday, an event shunned by President Jacob Zuma but attended by countless international leaders, â€œYou have to think of your people, not yourself” – as Nelson Mandela, or as Hain put it, the ‘herdboy turned freedom fighter’ undeniably did.
And his people came to pay their respects; members of the Mandela family, Zuma’s deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, HRH Prince Harry representing Her Majesty The Queen, British Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg and opposition leader Ed Miliband, to sit shoulder to shoulder with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the Lord Mayor of London – everybody who’d meant anything in The Struggle and all those who revere the leadership Mandela gave it.
As the first sunshine of spring dappled through the huge stained glass windows of Britain’s most famous abbey church, the Soweto Gospel Choir, ‘bornfrees’ in their Madiba-bright outfits, sang songs from Mandela’s traditional background; ‘Asimbonganga’ by Johnny Clegg, even one by Bob Marley (‘One Love’), clapping, whistling and dancing to the beat of just one drum. Westminster Abbey never felt so joyful.
“Nelson Mandela never claimed glory even when he achieved great things,” Deputy President Motlanthe said in his address to the 2,000-strong congregation. “He was shaped by the struggle, which shunned confrontation but held values of compassion and solidarity that went beyond simple opposition to apartheid. Inheritors of his dream have the unenviable challenge to make the dream for which Mandela lived come to pass.”
He stressed that Britain was among the nation’s best suited to lead the charge on boldly addressing racial inequalities and transfiguring the Mandela consciousness.
”Posterity will look at the current generation in the light of the Mandela experience,” he said. ‘If we fail it will not make sense to future generations that while Mandela evolved into a rugged moral force that edged humanity higher on the plane of civilisation, those who followed him either failed to live up to his philosophy or simply destroyed his dream.”
His Excellency Obed Mlaba, the new High Commissioner of the Republic of South Africa, read Joshua 4: 1-7, 19-end and the Prime Minister then read St John 10: 10-16.
Desmond Tutu, who opened with a blessing in both English and Afrikaans, gave an emotive, often witty, address reminding the gathering that he came from a country that only 20 years ago had signs like : Drive Carefully, Natives Crossing.
“Nowadays they could put up signs: Natives Very Cross Here!” he joked.
“Nelson Mandela was appalled by a system that treated black people as if they were scum in a demeaning dehumanising system, people who treated their dogs better than they treated us. Mandela and his colleagues resisted this vicious system. What would we have now if Mandela had died in prison? Mercifully he didn’t die in prison thanks very largely to the amazing international movement led by (the late archbishop) Trevor Huddleston.”
He continued, “Nelson Mandela was basically saying not a single one of us is a hopeless case with a first class ticket to hell. All of us have the capacity to save and Mandela made us believe that each one of us was made for goodness and loving, peace and laughter.”
Possibly the most unexpected eulogy came from former NUSAS president Jonty Driver who read a passage from the Robben Island ‘Bible’, aka Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which prisoners had signed their favourite lines.
“1964, when I was detained in the Sea Point Police Cells, I could just see Robben Island if I clung on to the bars of my window and pulled myself up as high as I could” he recalled. He read the lines that Mandela chose to sign: “Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear, Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.”
South Africa’s national anthem ‘Nkosi Sikilel’iAfrica’ was sung before Britain’s ‘God Save the Queen’ and the abbey bells rang out long and clear.
After the service, South African actress Dame Janet Suzman said she thought Motlanthe’s address was an exquisite, really finely constructed speech about what South Africa could be in the light of what Nelson Mandela wanted it to be,” she said.
“And Tutu lived up to every gorgeous expectation. It is amazing to think how fast 20 years have gone when Tutu talked about putting his X on the voting form. I don’t know where that 20 years has gone — such is history. The ceremony felt like a joyous book-end.”
Celebrated South African pianist Tessa Uys added, “For those of us who were privileged to be present for the Service,this was indeed a moment never to be forgotten. I sat beside the grave of George Frideric Handel, listening in awe to the magnificent voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir delivering their own Hallelujah Choruses in praise of Madiba. In contrast, there were sublime performances by the choir of Westminster Abbey and superbly performed organ works. These, combined with all the accolades and a most beautiful service of loving thanks by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, resulted in a deeply moving and inspirational memorial.”
Other notable figures who attended the service included Idris Elba, Boris Johnson, Richard E Grant, Gordon Brown, John Major and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
A memorial stone is to be laid in the Abbey dedicated to Mandela later this year. No foreign dignitaries have ever been honoured at Westminster Abbey before, setting a unique precedent for Mandela’s service.