On Mandela Day, Madiba will be remembered for many things, but his dry wit and warm sense of humour often goes under the radar, given the enormity of his other endearing qualities.
As Barack Obama delivered Tuesday’s 16th Nelson Mandela Lecture, we were reminded of all the revolutionary accomplishments our former president had to his name. But, just as prevalent as his crusade for social justice was his fierce pursuit of humour.
The event at The Wanderers kicked off with Professor Njabulo Ndebele’s quite excellent introductory speech. The address was poignant, dignified and downright hilarious.
He recalled an incident where he and Madiba shared an ill-fated flight together, back in the early 1990s. Ndebele took a glance outside of the window and noticed that one of the propellers had stopped working.
In his panic, he told Mandela what he had seen. However, he remained totally non-plussed and kept reading his newspaper. When the pilots announced that an emergency landing was coming up, Madiba looked up to Ndebele, and merely nodded – before going back to casually thumbing through the paper.
It was only when both emerged for the plane – which had safely come to a halt on the tarmac – did Mandela approach the professor and say to him “man, I was scared up there!”
Tata had kept his emotions in check, only to drop the bombshell on Ndbele once it was all over. Raucous laughter rolled around the stadium and it promptly reminded us that Madiba’s legacy extends beyond political achievement.
Humour has always been a huge part of Nelson Mandela’s appeal. But given the magnitude of what he was fighting against, it can sometimes take a backseat. Stories from his hometown of Qunu reveal that he has always had those “funny bones”.
One very popular local Madiba tale reveals how the young Rolihlahla would wear a pair of shoes many sizes too big for him, making his classmates laugh at him for his appearance.
If you ever do visit Qunu, a walking tour of the village includes the site of a thornbush which Mandela fell into while riding a donkey: A favourite to retell on Mandela Day.
Yes, this was perhaps more accidental than it was a stroke of slapstick genius, but it further fuels the notion that comedy followed Madiba whether he liked it or not.
Graça Machel delighted the audience with yarns about Mandela’s humility. She spoke about him like a true soulmate, and laughter was in the air once more when she talked about his refusal to accept himself as an icon.
So when Cyril Ramaphosa stepped up to the stage, there was an incredible buzz amongst the 8 000-strong crowd. There were smiles on faces, giggles in between sentences and rippling applause for every joke and kind sentiment shared by the speakers.
There’s your legacy. That’s exactly what Madiba lived and died for. Our freedom of expression and our right to enjoy ourselves. Those titters and giggles became belly-laughs when Ramaphosa decided this was a good time to roast Obama over his “inadequate” dance moves.
We think it’s fair to say Barack didn’t agree…
“Unfortunately, he cannot dance as well as Madiba can dance,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says, joking with Obama in speech on Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday in Johannesburg #tictocnews pic.twitter.com/8mLBLr61Kt
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) July 17, 2018
As Obama’s epic 90-minute speech drew the day to a close, he riffed on everything – from having to buy Long John’s on Tuesday morning due to the Gauteng chill, to the sheer lunacy of climate change deniers. His speech was as politically-charged as they come, but there was plenty of room for fun and games.
It wasn’t one message, one speech or one sound-bite from Joburg that encapsulated the “be the legacy” theme of the Nelson Mandela Lecture. It was the mood. One of both solemn reflection and perfectly refined humour.
Everyone who left The Wanderers at 17:00 yesterday left feeling happier and more positive about the world around them. There’s arguably nothing more befitting a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life than that.
Qunu’s most famous son had walked with kings and kept the common touch. Despite almost three decades behind bars, he maintained that sense of humour and the ability to interact with people of all colours and creed.
If you’re stuck for a way to dedicate your 67 minutes to a cause on Mandela Day, why not try and make someone laugh? It proved to be the best medicine for Madiba.