As memorable evenings go, spending last night in the presence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu discussing his friendship with Nelson Mandela, is not one to forget in a hurry. I sat there thinking "self, when it's your time to depart, these will be some of the moments that flash before your eyes."
Affectionately introduced as "The Arch", "Bish" and "Des" by an array of South African intellectuals to an audience including Peter Gabriel and Mary Robinson, the great man appeared on stage to a standing ovation at the Nelson Mandela Foundation Tribute in Houghton. "I thought it was only Americans that gave a standing ovation?" he said, bringing the house down, before addressing the marquee filled with his "beautiful people", a section of the rainbow nation that had come to pay their respects to his dear friend Madiba.
"I have reached the age where you start to repeat yourself, and quite often to the person that told you the thing in the first place" he apologised, before leading us through a witty and beguiling stream of consciousness. He referenced a story where a lady in San Francisco had rushed over to greet him as "Archbishop Mandela", and explained how this had left him satisfied that he had provided her with two Laureates for the price of one. He then had us roaring with laughter as he explained how it was terribly intimidating to have your wife staring at you from the front row and how he had better buy her a nice dress, the atmosphere once again illustrating that South Africa is finding joyful interludes, humour and celebration at a sad time along with a determination to celebrate Mandela's life rather than to dwell on his loss.
But witticisms aside, it was the moments of eloquent honesty with the Archbishop's soaring rhetoric triumphant in the fall of the vicious apartheid system and the freedom won for all South Africans, that touched the most. Stories of how Madiba had born his crucible of suffering on Robben Island, performing harsh manual labour and sewing post office bags, and the effects these had subsequently had on his eye sight and lungs, that awed in contrast with the future President's refusal to think of hatred and revenge upon release. The Archbishop spoke of Mandela as an icon of forgiveness, and explained that the magnanimity found in the sufferers of atrocities under the apartheid regime was what achieved the very thing the world had thought impossible: peace in South Africa.
He went on to describe Mandela as a magician with a wand that had transformed the world's pariah state into a beautiful butterfly. Rolling his 'R's and reaching for the sky, the Archbishop told a poignant story of how Mandela had stayed with him the first night after his release from 27 years in prison and the following day had insisted that he meet all the domestic staff to thank them. He went on to say that this became a Mandela 'trait', always wanting to go into the kitchens and thank the staff wherever he went, because, as the Archbishop put it, it was Mandela's way of saying that although not everyone is a VIP, we are all 'VSP', or Very Special People.
When George Bizos, Mandela's lawyer at the Rivonia trial, walked on stage to offer his reflections on the trial, in crept the sensation that we were watching extraordinary moments once more in Johannesburg. If there is a more indefatigable city in the world I do not know it, bursting forth from apartheid with such astonishing exuberance, that you can feel its determination to forge a new identity as Africa's leading city every day.
Stood with his chin gently tilted, George Bizos praised both Mandela and the Archbishop for their courage and their example to all. To those present it was apparent that stagnant, violent times had produced some extraordinary lilies, as well as philosophical thought on what it means to live a human life with dignity.
As the Soweto Gospel Choir came on stage to sing and we watched the 82 year old Archbishop and his wife get up to dance in the audience, it seemed to send a message that the men and women of the apartheid struggle would continue with soul, integrity and an energetic moral compass, and that they would proudly do this right until the very end.