Washington - Monarchs, world leaders and pop royalty are so eager to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service today that South Africa is holding it in a 95,000-seat stadium.
A select few seem less keen on attending.
China has announced that it will send a vice president and not President Xi Jinping, while Russia is sending a lower-level official. Israel has said it will send the speaker of its parliament, not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the expense of airfare and security.
While Mandela’s legacy of resistance, reconciliation, and leadership has drawn worldwide praise since his death December 5 at the age of 95, those qualities and his loyalty to those who supported him, regardless of their political history, make him a challenging figure for others.
“Obviously, various types of leaders would be reluctant, honouring a leader who both emerged from prison, who had tremendous national popularity, and was able to transcend traditional politics and create a new beginning for a state,” said Will Pomeranz, the Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group.
The service at FNB Stadium will draw political leaders and cultural figures ready to praise that legacy, including US President Barack Obama, Irish rock star and activist Bono, and the Prince of Wales.
They may recall Mandela’s speech to the court on the day in 1964 he was convicted of sabotage and sent to prison, where he was held for 27 years.
He told the court that a democratic and free society was “an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The power of that speech is another reason Mandela remains such a charged figure for authoritarian leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pomeranz said.
Russia said yesterday it would be sending Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, to attend the service instead of Putin, according to Voice of Russia Radio.
China will send Vice President Li Yuanchao instead of Xi. Li’s attendance shows that China “attaches great importance to South Africa’s funeral arrangements,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in Beijing today.
“President Xi personally phoned South African President Zuma to express his deep condolences over Mandela’s passing,” Hong said in reference to South African leader Jacob Zuma.
There are practical reasons for the Chinese president to miss the event, said Chris Johnson, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.
This week, China will hold its Central Economic Conference to discuss reforms with which Xi is closely associated.
“There’s no way he could get there and back in time,” said Johnson.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Xi has delegated many such tasks to Li.
Communist Party leaders also don’t want to send the wrong signal to their people, he said.
“They don’t want to give too much publicity to the funeral of someone who spent 27 years in jail fighting against injustice and apartheid,” Cabestan said.
“You have a number of political prisoners in China who are also fighting for freedom.”
Mandela’s status as a symbol of popular resistance isn’t dissuading Iran from sending a representative.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s plans to attend were scuttled because he’s hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
In his place, Iran’s Vice President for Executive Affairs Mohammad Shariatmadari will attend, Iranian media reported.
For other countries, it’s less Mandela’s symbolism than his history that may be the problem.
The South African leader refused to turn his back on former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who supported his anti-apartheid cause when the US still backed the apartheid government.
In 1997, Mandela visited Qaddafi in Libya over objections from the US, which had imposed sanctions on the North African nation.
He told the press later that, “This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.”
Mandela was critical of Israel’s support for the apartheid regime, noting that support during a 1999 visit to Israel.
He also condemned Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, comparing it to apartheid.
Israel and South Africa have full trade and diplomatic relations.
Even so, Netanyahu won’t attend Mandela’s service, said a government official who cited the expense of flying to South Africa and making security arrangements on short notice.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no one was authorised to comment by name.
Netanyahu has been under fire at home for the extent of his personal expenses on items such as scented candles and flower arrangements.
In the prime minister’s place, Yuli Edelstein, the parliamentary speaker, and other lawmakers, will fly down, Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir said.
President Shimon Peres is recovering from the flu and under doctor’s orders not to make the trip, according to Israel Radio. - Bloomberg News