BDLive: “Mandela Day celebrated in Mozambique and New York”

IT WAS no ordinary book launch. The audience of several hundred crammed into a hall in one of Maputo’s top hotels on Thursday night was a who’s who of Mozambican high society, including the wife of President Armando Guebuza, Maria da Luz Guebuza, and former president Joaquim Chissano. They had come to pay homage to a former resident of the city, Nelson Mandela, who was lying in a hospital bed hundreds of kilometres away.

The launch of a book called Thank You, Madiba, written by Abilio Soeiro, a Mozambican man who struck up a friendship with Mr Mandela during the decade or so he spent shuttling between the Mozambican capital and South Africa, delivered an excuse to reflect on the meaning of Madiba’s legacy in Mozambique.

Smatterings of South African classics such as Shosholoza and Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata set the tone for the evening, along with archive footage of the Soweto riots in 1976 and of Mr Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela emerging from the gates of Pollsmoor prison. Tito Mboweni, the former head of South Africa’s Reserve Bank, led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday.

Sadness at Mr Mandela’s failing health was tempered by the celebration of the links forged between the two countries during their respective liberation struggles. Madiba’s 95th birthday is also the 15th anniversary of his wedding to Mozambique’s former first lady Graca Machel.

“I would like to congratulate Graca for the role she has played during these difficult times when Madiba has been unwell,” Mr Mboweni said, adding: “I should have listened to my parents when they told me, ‘Go to Mozambique to find a dignified wife.’”

Mr Mboweni, who accepted a cheque for R200,000 from Mr Soeiro on the early sales of the coffee-table book as a contribution to the building of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, sang a Frelimo struggle song, drawing attention to the strong bonds between the Mozambican former liberation movement, now the country’s ruling party, and the African National Congress.

He even poked fun at South Africa’s high commissioner in Mozambique, Charles Nqakula, who, he said, had run guns through Mozambique during struggle times. “He committed crimes here,” he told the crowd.

“Nelson Mandela cannot live forever. At some point he is going to leave the earth,” Mr Nqakula reminded the audience, speaking of Mr Mandela’s legacy in avoiding bloodshed in the early, volatile years as South Africa emerged from apartheid. “Comrade Bio (as the author is affectionately known), you are fortunate to have rubbed shoulders with a giant. Many are not so fortunate.”

When the softly spoken Mr Soeiro asked the audience to get to their feet to wish Mr Mandela a fast recovery, they did so as one and the hall rang to thunderous applause.

“All of us have accepted his invitation to bow down before this inspiring leader whose legacy transcends South Africa’s borders,” said Mr Guebuza, the Mozambican president, in a prerecorded video message played at the launch.

Despite the intertwined relations between South Africa and its Lusophone neighbour, the two countries have also had their ups and downs.

“Recently we have been talking a lot about xenophobia,” Mr Chissano said on the sidelines of the launch, referring to the death of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia in police custody in South Africa earlier in 2013. “This book can change this discourse to one of greater closeness between the two peoples, and that is desirable,” he added.

Celebration in New York

Meanwhile, in the US, New York celebrated Mandela Day with an informal meeting of the general assembly at the United Nations attended by former US president Bill Clinton, Rev Jesse Jackson, singer and social activist Harry Belafonte and Mr Mandela’s fellow Rivonia trialist Andrew Mlangeni.

A smattering of quotes from Mr Mandela filled the billboards of Times Square amid continuing charity efforts to help those affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The Big Apple, which is the first US city Mr Mandela visited on his release from prison in 1990, joined 17 other cities across the country to commemorate the day.

In Washington, DC, a gathering led by House speaker John Boehner at Emancipation Hall revolved around Mr Mandela’s life, legacy and values, while in Boston, a celebration of the former statesman’s 95th birthday took place at a church near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings. It was attended by the city’s mayor, Thomas Merino and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

Mandela Day in 2013 took place in the US as the country grappled with issues of race and social equality, following the verdict reached by a jury in the George Zimmerman case, where the former neighbourhood watch leader was acquitted of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death.

South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, said the teenager’s death and the reaction to the ruling showed how Mr Mandela’s example of racial tolerance continued to speak to present-day issues. “People want to have an example of healing and how one can reconcile when there is an appearance of injustice,” he said. “If we look at the Trayvon Martin aftermath through the lens of Nelson Mandela, it validates how he continues to shape how we must think about these very difficult matters that confront us from time to time.”

Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica, a US-based human rights organisation that helped mobilise anti-apartheid pressure, said the mood in the US was partly the reason for the creation of the hashtag #MandelaMatters on Twitter.

“In the discussion about racism and the problems we have domestically, Mr Mandela is a transformative figure in these matters,” she said. “He speaks truth to power — for people around the world. We hope through these celebrations we can ensure that his legacy can permeate what is happening in the US.”

Mr Rasool said the willingness of Americans to take part in Mandela Day events was a continuation of the “remarkable role non-South Africans played in the anti-apartheid struggle”. He said honouring Mr Mandela was “a celebration of a human spirit that knows no boundaries”.

Aside from giving their time, Americans have also been encouraged to donate denominations that play on the number 67 for the building of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital.

“This has been a way for Americans to show what we are about,” said Ms Lee. “That we are not just concerned with things that go on in our own backyard but that we are interested in what goes on outside of that too.”

She said teachers and professors were working on a curriculum around Mr Mandela’s history to be taught at institutions in the US.

“We are trying to create tools for young people who were born after Mandela’s release to help them understand his struggle and his importance. There are lots of parallels between his story and the civil rights movement here,” she said.

“We had a saying 25 years ago: we have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can deal with domestic issues but we should support international ones too.”

With its support for Mandela Day, the US was sticking true to this saying.