Every detail of Mandela memorial at Westminster Abbey was magnificently judged, says Chris Chivers.
London - It was not the first time that the South African flag had flown from the tower of Westminster Abbey. That happened in 1994 when a great service welcomed South Africa back to the Commonwealth, and it happens each year on Freedom Day when the High Commissioner comes to the abbey to read a lesson at Evensong.
It wasn’t the first time that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has preached at the abbey. At the service in 1994 he did so beginning his address with the single word “Wow!” – allowing the echo to take it to the rafters before he roared with laughter and added with glee “We’re back”.
But on Monday, at the Nelson Mandela memorial, it was certainly the first time that any citizen of Africa has received a thanksgiving service at the heart of the British establishment.
It was also the first visit of the Soweto Gospel Choir. In the words of one of the adult make singers in the abbey choir they “stole the show”.
I doubt that Bob Marley’s One Love has ever before been heard echoing through the abbey’s high gothic vaulting. But this was always of course going to be a day for uniqueness because it celebrated someone everyone regards as having been one of the world’s greatest citizens.
Every detail was magnificently judged. the Soweto Gospel Choir having set the scene and roused the emotions of the 2 000 strong congregation, the organist offered a hymn tube prelude by the South African composer John Joubert.
The hymns – all well known offered lines that resonated for everyone there whether we were “treading the verge of Jordan”, walking “in the light of life till travelling days are done” or rightly attributing the power that enabled Madiba to spearhead the transformation of South Africa to the Infinite one “who lives – and loves – and saves”.
The readings – a memorial of stones set up at the behest of Joshua when the Jordan had been crossed and the promised land reached, and that most crucial of divine promises, I came that they may have life, life in all its abundance – spoke deeply of the man who had brought the world to life with an ability to forgive and transcend, to unite and inspire that is rare indeed across history.
The abbey choir – the best of its type in the world – didn’t compete with the Soweto Gospel Choir who sang Johnny Clegg’s haunting Asimbonanga following a recorded extract from Madiba’s inauguration address.
They added the African American spiritual, Deep River, in an arrangement by the British composer Michael Tippett, and the ancient prayer Agnus Dei, Lamb of God give us peace, whose invocation soared to the heavens, as many responsible in Britain and South Africa for matters of state – the British Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe headed the political lists, with Prince Harry representing the queen – must have wished a Mandela was available now to address the pity an horrors of the Ukraine.
There were two beautiful and doubtless unexpected touches.
The first was Tutu invoking God in Afrikaans at the start of his address. As at the memorial service in Johannesburg following Madiba’s death, when he used it in his blessing, the language was spoken nowhere else – and one does wonder how the present South African government can be so unaware of Madiba’s care to use and honour it. It was fundamental to his desire for reconciliation.
The second deft touch in a service which saw the most finely judged addresses one could wish for from veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, Peter Hain, Motlanthe and the Arch, was Jonty Driver introducing and reading an extract from the so-called Robben Island Bible.
Prisoners had chosen their favourite passages and Madiba had presciently marked the following:
Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me must strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will comes.
Driver read the passage movingly, indeed many tears were seen at this point.
Driver, a celebrated poet, novelist and educationalist, was of course president of the National Union of South African students in 1964, and was himself detained in solitary confinement in Sea Point police station as Mandela was sent to the island, which Driver could just see if he dragged himself up by the cell window bars.
The connections and associations at this moment, as throughout the service, were deeply affecting and inspiring.
For one of the most fearless persons ever to have graced the earth, Shakespeare’s words were exactly the thought with which to leave us as we face the life we must live before our own death with a courage that deputy president Motlanhe had suggested needed to live up to not fail Madiba’s dream.
But as speech gave way to the South African National anthem, its embodiment of reconciliation musically and textually left us in no doubt of Madiba’s most lasting legacy and pressing call.