Logistical storm surrounds Mandela mourning period

Workers climb scaffolding while constructing a stage ahead of Nelson Mandela's national memorial service at First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg. Photo by Reuters
Workers climb scaffolding while constructing a stage ahead of Nelson Mandela's national memorial service at First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg. Photo by Reuters
Johannesburg has been hit by a storm.

Yes, it has been raining since I arrived, but the storm is the sheer logistical nightmare that is a 10-day mourning period for former President Nelson Mandela.

Mandela's record and his profile around the world meant that it was always going to be this way.

World leaders and former leaders were clamouring to come and pay their respects to the man many South Africans see as the architect of their freedom.

This has been a difficult task for the South African Government as it had to follow protocols and ensure that the various dignitaries were given the proper welcome.

Prime Minister John Key is just one of many dignitaries that needed to be catered for. Managing the huge media contingent and organising the various events has increased the pressure on the Jacob Zuma-led Government that is desperate to give Madiba a proper farewell and also receive some praise at a time when the heat is on.

The Government and the African National Congress were embarrassed by a section of the crowd at Mandela's memorial service at the FNB stadium who booed Jacob Zuma when he arrived and also every time his image appeared on the giant screens around the ground.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said it was the "wrong platform" to be politicised and media commentators agreed that while it clearly showed simmering discontent over Mr Zuma's handling of the affairs of state, it was not a good look with the rest of the world watching.

But there are some issues that run deep.

In particular, many people question the use of more than R206 million of taxpayers' money to pay for the "security upgrade" at Mr Zuma's private Nkandla homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Another thorn in the side of many residents of Johannesburg is the new e-toll system that will see the Government's transport agency collect thousands of Rand a week when drivers criss-cross this vast city in a day's work. A common point I have heard since I arrived is that all the move has done is push traffic onto the inferior secondary roads, which is where the money should have been spent in the first place.

Either way, sad as Mandela's death is, the Government was probably secretly hoping it would take attention off the problems at home and put South Africa in a positive light.

The speed with which the South African Government has rolled out the infrastructure and procedure to cope with such a huge undertaking is admirable. It has been a quick turnaround since Mandela's death, but they have achieved it to some extent, albeit in a lyrical African way.

One conspiracy theory doing the rounds in the townships is that Mandela may have actually died a few days earlier, but the news was kept secret until a structure had been set in place.

Adding fuel to this speculation is that Mandela's body was moved fairly quickly after his death. Mandela was a Xhosa and a member of the Thembu Royal household, where there are strict protocols around a death in the family. Some believe this gives credibility to the unproven theory that he died a few days earlier.

Whatever the case may be, there is still plenty of mourning to be done. The attention moves to Pretoria, the Administrative Capitol of South Africa, where Mandela is lying in state for the rest of the week. Mr Key was hoping to go and pay his respects at the Union Buildings last night (NZT).

The real test for the South African Government and the Thembu tribe will be when the funeral procession moves to the tiny village of Qunu in the former apartheid homeland of Transkei, where Mandela will be laid to rest with his ancestors.

About one thousand kilometres from Johannesburg and along the coast between Durban and East London, Transkei is a land of rolling hills and subsistence farming.

The nearest big city is Mthatha, which in a former life was called Umtata and was the seat of government of the illegitimate apartheid homeland creation.

The concern many have is that Transkei, Qunu and Mthatha do not have the infrastructure to cope with the volume of people expected to descend on the area for the funeral on Sunday. Already all flights to Mthatha are fully booked and people are being urged to fly to East London or even Port Elizabeth on the eastern seaboard and travel by car the rest of the way.

Whatever the logistics, this is the only way it could ever have been done. Mandela deserved a state funeral and, in accordance with Xhosa tradition, he needs to be laid to rest at the place of his birth.

It is the least a country that he devoted his life to liberating can do to honour him.

- By Andrew Austin in Johannesburg

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