Pretoria - There was a near fight at the FNB Stadium on Tuesday as kings, queens, princes, princesses, presidents and prime ministers were caught up in a melee of security officials as they tried to get to their seats in time for the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
South African police officers would not allow the security guards or other officials of the heads of state and government to accompany them to the upper VVIP gallery of the stadium.
“Only prime ministers, presidents, kings and princes in here,” said one official sternly.
This led to shouting, jostling and pushing, which seemed at one point to be about to break into fisticuffs.
Glamorous Queen Rania of Jordan was one of those who looked bemused as her guards and officials battled with the South African police.
“I’m with the queen, I’m with the queen,” one Jordanian official screamed as the guards manhandled him away from the door.
EU council president Herman van Rompuy’s entourage also battled to force a passage for him through the crowd.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Botswana’s President Ian Khama, Benin’s President Yayi Boni and Spanish Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon were other leaders who tried hard to maintain their dignity as their officials did battle with the guardians of the VVIP enclosure.
“It’s mayhem there,” said one foreign diplomat.
Eventually the SAPS brought in military police as reinforcements and restored some order.
Some embassies complained that the logistics had been chaotic in other ways, saying they were not told until their leaders arrived whether they would have transport and security.
Others shrugged off the security and logistics glitches as routine for large gatherings of leaders and hardly surprising for one on this scale - possible the largest such gathering in history.
Though a precise figure is hard to calculate because it depends on the definition, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation said about 100 current or former heads of state or government were in the stadium to pay tribute to the global icon.
Meanwhile Francois Pienaar, the Springbok rugby captain who famously received the World Cup trophy from Mandela - dressed in Pienaar’s No 6 jersey - and current Springbok captain Jean de Villiers glided much more effortlessly to their seats in the VIP gallery above the heads of state.
“I’m very blessed to be here,” said Pienaar. I have mixed emotions - from happiness to sorrow.”
De Villiers agreed, adding: “I’m very gratified and privileged to be here. It’s a great opportunity to say goodbye to one who gave so much to South Africa and say thank you for a life well lived.”
Musisican Bono also paid tribute to Mandela, saying he had been fighting for his cause since the 1970s when his U2 band used to perform at anti-apartheid and later Free Mandela concerts.
Actress Charlize Theron was another celebrity in the VIP gallery, showing no signs of the fatigue her security guard said she was feeling after a long journey from the US.
The Europeans were also miffed that neither the EU nor any individual European nation had been giving a speaking slot at the service.
“We have had a long association with South Africa and with Mandela,” said one vexed ambassador.
“It is a bit strange,” said Van Rompuy, “but don’t make an incident of it.” As several ambassadors noted, the international speeches reflected South Africa’s foreign policy priority with the Brics countries dominating proceedings..
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao all spoke, as did UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, US President Barack Obama – who was presented as a “son of Africa” – African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Cuban President Raul Castro and Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba who apparently was chosen because he is also chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The only member of Brics – the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa forum of emerging nations – which did not speak was Russia.