On Mandela’s Memorial

Every pundit out there is penning their own obituary for Nelson Mandala. Paraphrasing his life, achievements, and legacy in their own words. And boy there is a lot to say.

But Mandela’s passing has given us something beautiful. Something unseen and unheard of before, something that I think we should be collectively proud of. A symbolic phenomenon that does the legacy of Mandela justice.

This week almost 100 world leaders and dignitaries, past and present, gathered in the same place to pay tribute to a “giant of history.”

Coinciding with the United Nation’s Human Rights Day, the memorial’s atmosphere before the ceremony was one of joy and celebration, more akin to the opening game of the Soccer World Cup

Never before have we seen the world collectively gather in celebration and unity.  World leaders spoke to the jubilant crowd – many even spending the service singing and dancing like Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and China’s Vice-President Li Yuanchao.

President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in South Africa was a spontaneous gesture of greeting and went no further than pleasantries, according to a White House aide.

And what a powerfully symbolic gesture it was.

As he bounced onto the podium, Obama extended his hand to communist leader Castro, who shook it and smiled back.

The last public handshake between U.S. and Cuban presidents since the island’s 1959 revolution was at the United Nations in 2000, when Raul’s brother Fidel shook the hand of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in a chance encounter.

“Nothing was planned in terms of the president’s role other than his remarks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama. “He really didn’t do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn’t a substantive discussion.”

The rare gesture between the leaders of two ideological opponents at the memorial seemed to reflect Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation.

The symbolism of progress and unity was not exclusive to smiles and handshakes.

South African President Jacob Zuma was booed by the rain-soaked crowd as he entered the stadium and prepared to give his opening address. It seemed Mandela’s death has seldom diverted attention away from the string of corruption scandals that have rocked the Zuma administration. The event highlighted the differences between South Africa’s first and fourth black president.

“I was here in 1990 when Mandela was freed and I am here again to say goodbye,” said Beauty Pule, 51. “I am sure Mandela was proud of the South Africa he helped create. It’s not perfect but no one is perfect, and we have made great strides.”

Perhaps this in itself shows just how far South Africa has come, from an intolerant nation with no clemency for dissidence from its own people to a nation whose citizens are able to actively make their dissatisfaction of the government known.

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial snub of the memorial due to the high travel and security costs caused quite an uproar.

Christa Case Bryant in the Christian Science Monitor, expressed that the simple fact that Mr. Netanyahu did not attend the funeral was serious in itself: “While the Israeli leader’s absence may have gone relatively unnoticed in South Africa, it has caused consternation in Israel. Detractors argue that missing the memorial of a man who championed freedom and brought down apartheid gives fresh fodder to critics who say Israel, too, has constructed an apartheid system and is insincere about reconciling with Palestinians after decades of conflict.”

I believe the backlash there shows the ubiquitous movement towards a global community that stands together for justice, tolerance and peace.

We should take a moment to revel in what we have just witnessed. The greatest showcase of unity that ever was has just taken place in our lifetime.

What a wonderful world.

Photo: Memorial service of the late former President Nelson Mandela, 10 Dec 2013 by GovernmentZA used with a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.