“That was a nice speech,” Kleinpiet says as he sits down. “I mean, he stole the show.”
“Ja, very eloquent. The best of the day, I agree. But I think it was a bit more than a eulogy.” Gertruida, as always, throwing out the bait.
“You’re on to something again, Gertruida. You might as well share it.”
“Obama is a very clever man. Or his speech-writer is, if you think of it. Anyway, here we have the president of the United States, travelling all the way from America at great cost, to deliver a eulogy. No problem with that. Many world leaders did that, as we know. But…I think there was a deeper, less obvious reason for his visit as well. He came to give our government a message and I’m not sure if Zuma picked up on it.”
Gertruida can be such a tease. She knows she has them now, so she orders a beer and sits back with that all-knowing smile.
“Okay, I’ll tell you. He started off with the expected praise for a great man, but listen to what he said. He praised Madiba for his willingness to step down after only one term – that’s when I sat up. Surely he wasn’t implying anything with it? Or was he telling our president something? I thought I was wrong, but there was more.
“Then he said: It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection — because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried — that we loved him so. You know what I heard? He was telling us what he liked about Mandela. He was saying: If you can’t admit your mistakes, I see it as an insult.
“A few sentences later he went on: Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions… I think everybody listening to him, realised that half-truths and lies had no place in a leader’s political life. And also: Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.
“Those are powerful words, my friends. I also liked the way he told us how Mandela was instrumental in creating our Constitution: true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African. Then he spoke about ubuntu: It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you… Trust? Speaking of trust in front of an audience that just booed our president?
“Towards the end of the speech, Obama encouraged his listeners to reflect, saying Mandela’s passing should be a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? Then he mentioned the problem of health care, unemployment and education, the major issues in the country; but he disguised it as a worldwide problem.
“And listen to this gem: There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
Vetfaan can only shake his head. Sure, he listened to that speech as well, but he thought Obama was talking about Madiba’s example.
“Exactly, Vetfaan. But think about it: on the stage of world politics, things aren’t so obvious as they seem. There are always subtle hints. Obama says hello to Castro – now there’s a little incident that may mean a lot…or nothing.
“But consider this: eulogies are for the dead, And dead people don’t hear so well. So who ends up hearing the message? The people listening – in this case, all the leaders of the world, and a global audience. And who’s the host of the day? Our president.
“I can tell you: Obama was here for more than one reason. He certainly came here to pay a tribute to Nelson Mandela – but he also used the opportunity to tell us something very important. He held up a political mirror for those brave enough to see themselves. Look, he said, at yourselves.”
“I don’t know, Gertruida. I thought Obama spoke about Mandela. Now you’re saying he was telling Zuma to get it right – or get out? Don’t you think you’re over-analysing this thing?”
“Vetfaan, you witnessed the end of a love affair. With Madiba gone, the world’s fascination with South Africa has ended. No more Madiba Magic. We’re on our own now. From now on, the buck stops in our president’s office.”
The debate in Boggel’s Place is far from over, but Gertruida will defend her opinion fearlessly. Kleinpiet will leave in a huff, saying he doesn’t get it. Vetfaan will continue shaking his head, and Boggel will smile – a good debate is good for business.
In the end they’ll agree: politics have many layers. And yes, eulogies are intended for those that stay behind. The question remains, however: what was said, and what was heard?