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2013-07-18 19.17.08

For those of my generation (I was barely in school when Mandela was released from prison) who may have historical yearnings to have experienced the US anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s first-hand, attendance at yesterday’s 95th birthday celebration of Nelson Mandela may be the closest that one will ever come to rekindling that atmosphere.  However, I don’t think that one would have found the South African Ambassador scurrying around with a bunch of bananas in his hands at that time.

The event was held in a magnificent church, the Metropolitan AME, currently celebrating its 175th year and attracted a very diverse crowd (a Rabbi, Preacher and Nation of Islam Imam all gave remarks).  In light of the current tension generated by Zimmerman/Martin, this atmosphere was quite refreshing and I think it would have heartened Mandela.

Alas, I saw no cupcakes around, but both CakeLove and Red Velvet Cupcakes were thanked in the program.  TransAfrica Forum was the main convener however.

The night was launched with remarks by several members of Congress who had supported the Free South Africa Movement.  DC’s Congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, spoke of her own political protest and arrest outside of the South African Embassy in the 1980s.  She also made some remarks that obliquely compared DC’s political status to that of Apartheid South Africa.

Ron Dellums, the former California Congressman who drafted comprehensive anti-Apartheid legislation that was passed over Ronald Reagan’s veto in 1986, gave some humorous imitations of Mandela’s voice and lavished praise on the ‘gigantic saint’.  According to Wikipedia, there is a very odd sounding fictional Disney film about the Dellums’ family anti-Apartheid activities, The Color of Friendship.

Richard Lugar, the recently deposed Indiana Senator rounded out the trio.  He waxed nostalgically about the bipartisanship of the 1980s and said that he hoped Mandela’s example will get Congress to ‘think constructively’ again.

The evening then moved on to several prominent civil society actors.

Johnnetta Cole, former President of Spelman College spoke her campaign to encourage divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.  Professor Michael Eric Dyson spoke of contemporary politics, wondering what Mandela might make of the Trayvon Martin case and urging Obama to ‘meet [Mandela] on the battlefield of courage.  Donald Gips, who was the US Ambassador to South Africa until the beginning of this year followed, but as he himself knew, his remarks were lost in the fiery wake of Dyson’s oratory.

Various governmental representatives could not let the night pass without adding their own contributions.  Somehow, the Dean of the African Ambassadors in DC is the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Faida Mitifu.  I’m not sure how I feel about a high ranking official of the DRC saying things like Mandela ‘showed us Presidents can retire’ or ‘he showed us not to fear democracy and human rights, but to embrace it.’ Her comments that ‘Africa paid a high price for its love of Mandela’, followed by a recital of southern African countries devastated by the Apartheid state resembled the sort of dialogue I would have expected.

Princeton Lyman continued the trend of relatively uninspiring comments by former US Ambassadors to South Africa, speaking on Obama’s recent visit to the country and his experience at Mandela inauguration in 1994.  Fortunately, the child prodigy from Cape Town, Daniel Petersen III still had the audience riled up from his impressive drumming session.  There was also a more traditional Cameroonian drummer, who I previously encountered at a Friends of the Congo event.

While this was a great uplifting night and particularly timely given the racial tensions of the week, I remain a bit concerned by the excessive veneration of Mandela and its impact on perceptions of African political leaders.  Johnetta Cole sounded the most fascistic note of the night, exclaiming ‘if such a position existed, Mandela would be the universal President.’

Let us not confuse inspiration with idolation.