‘I don’t want to be emotional but this is one of the greatest moments of my life,” declared Nelson Mandela upon meeting the Spice Girls in 1997. So I like to think he would have appreciated the livelier aspects of his funeral observances. The Prince of Wales, who was also present on that occasion in Johannesburg, agreed with Mandela on the significance of their summit with the girls: “It is the second-greatest moment in my life,” he said. “The greatest was when I met them the first time.” His Royal Highness and at least two Spice Girls (reports are unclear) attended this week’s service in Soweto, and I’m sure it was at least the third-greatest moment in all of their lives. Don’t ask me where the other Spice Girls were. It is a melancholy reflection that the Spice Girls’ delegation was half the size of Canada’s, which flew in no fewer than four Canadian prime ministers, which is rather more Canadian prime ministers than one normally needs to make the party go with a swing.
But the star of the show was undoubtedly Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign-language interpreter who stood alongside the world’s leaders and translated their eulogies for the deaf. Unfortunately, he translated them into total gibberish, reduced by the time of President Obama’s appearance to making random hand gestures, as who has not felt the urge to do during the great man’s speeches. Mr. Jantjie has now pleaded in mitigation that he was having a sudden hallucination because he is a violent schizophrenic. It has not been established whether he is, in fact, a violent schizophrenic, or, as with his claim to be a sign-language interpreter, merely purporting to be one. Asked how often he has been violent, he replied, somewhat cryptically, “A lot.”
That would never happen in Washington, of course. But how heartening, as one watches the viral video of Obama droning on while a mere foot and a half away Mr. Jantjie rubs his belly and tickles his ear, to think that the White House’s usual money-no-object security operation went to the trouble of flying in Air Force One, plus the “decoy” Air Force One, plus support aircraft, plus the 120-vehicle motorcade or whatever it’s up to by now, plus a bazillion Secret Service agents with reflector shades and telephone wire dangling from their ears, to shepherd POTUS into the secured venue and then stand him onstage next to an $85-a-day violent schizophrenic. In the movie version—In the Sign of Fire—grizzled maverick Clint Eastwood will be the only guy to figure it out at the last minute and hurl himself at John Malkovich, as they roll into the orchestra pit with Malkovich furiously signing “Ow!” and “Eek!” But in real life I expect they’ll just double the motorcade to 240 vehicles and order up even more expensive reflector shades.
Also pondering security issues was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He returned home from the service to find that, while he’d been out hailing Mandela as the father of the new South Africa, his house had been burgled. One suspects that Mr. Mandela, for whom a little of the garrulous archbishop went an awful long way, would have enjoyed this rather more than he ought. Speaking of enjoying themselves, back in the VIP seats President Obama, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and British prime minister David Cameron carried on like Harry, Hermione, and Ron snogging in the back row during the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup presentation. As the three leaders demonstrated their hands-on approach, Michelle Obama glowered straight ahead, as stony and merciless as the 15-foot statue of apartheid architect Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd that once stood guard outside the government offices of the Orange Free State. Eventually, weary of the trilateral smooching, the first lady switched seats and inserted herself between Barack and the vivacious Helle. How poignant that, on a day to celebrate the post-racial South Africa, the handsome young black man should have to be forcibly segregated from the cool Aryan blonde. For all the progress, as Obama himself pointed out, “our work is not yet done.”
Alas, far from the face-pulling selfies, Mandela jokes are no laughing matter. Simon Amstell (who appears to be a comedian in the same sense that Thamsanqa Jantjie is a sign-language interpreter) visited BBC Radio and quipped that “it’s so white in here Mandela would not approve.” Shortly thereafter, the host apologized on air lest anyone was offended. Which they were, because Mr. Amstell himself subsequently apologized on Twitter. Neil Phillips did not get off so lightly. During the final stages of the African leader’s slowly deteriorating health, Mr. Phillips, who runs the Crumbs sandwich shop in the English town of Rugeley, had gone online and complained: “My PC takes so long to shut down I’ve decided to call it Nelson Mandela.” The Staffordshire constabulary arrested him, seized his computers, and in the course of an eight-hour detention fingerprinted and DNA-swabbed him.
“There are no jokes in Islam,” Ayatollah Khomeini sternly warned, and that’s true even for its “moderate” redoubts, where Shez Cassim, a U.S. citizen from Minnesota, has languished in a Dubai jail cell since April for making a video mildly parodic of United Arab Emirates youth. But, as Mr. Phillips discovered, there are fewer jokes outside Islam, too. Once upon a time, it was Communist Eastern Europe that policed gags, as captured in Milan Kundera’s first great novel. Now even in free societies an infelicitous jest can lead to a rap sheet. In such a world, we should treasure the hilarity of the Mandela service. “Nelson Mandela stood for freedom,” his successor Jacob Zuma said. “He wanted everyone to be free.” Unfortunately, some of the crowd booed Zuma, so he’s now having them investigated for embarrassing him.
Still, let’s take him at his word: Mandela wanted everyone to be free. Free to sign-translate the U.N. secretary-general’s speech into total codswallop. Free to cop a feel from the Danish prime minister. And free, for all the loftiness of the forgettable rhetoric, to relish the low comedy all around it.