After his death, South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela could become the first non-Briton (and first African) to be honored at a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, which has held the coronation for every British monarch since 1066. The Daily Telegraph reported that the 94-year-old Mandela, currently in critical condition with a lung infection at a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, is the subject of ongoing talks between British authorities and the South African High Commission over such a historic memorial.
However, a spokesman for the Abbey denied a report in South Africa’s Sunday Independent newspaper that Queen Elizabeth II raised the idea herself and planned on attending. “There are no decisions about exactly who would attend. It’s really too premature to discuss these things while Mr. Mandela is still with us,” Abbey spokesman Duncan Jeffrey, told the paper. But Jeffrey admitted that holding a service for Mandela would be unprecedented. “It is unusual yes, but Westminster Abbey does have very firm links with the Commonwealth,” he said. “I think it’s probably the first time it’s happened [for a non-Briton].”
In the event Mandela is honored at Westminster Abbey, it would mark a dramatic about-face for a government that once regarded him as a terrorist. The Telegraph explained that Mandela has been treated as a “unique case” by the British government since his release from prison in 1990. He reportedly enjoys a good relationship with Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him an Order of Merit when she visited South Africa in 1995, making him the first such foreign honoree.
Mandela’s grandson Kweku told the Telegraph that during the past few weeks, the Queen had spoken to his grandfather by telephone a number of times. “The first time he met her, he called her Elizabeth, and she told him: 'It’s actually Your Majesty. And you have to bow’,” he said.
When Mandela, as president of South Africa, visited Britain in 1996 he received the unusual honor of addressing both Houses of Parliament. A statue of him already stands in Parliament Square – bizarrely, across from one depicting Sir Winston Churchill. During this visit, Mandela and the Queen even danced together at a concert in Albert Hall. Mandela also visited with the Queen in London in 2008, for festivities surrounding his 90th birthday.
While a service for Mandela at Westminster Abbey would attract global attention and huge media coverage, some newspaper commenters are displeased with the idea. A reader calling himself “Tom 18” wrote to the Telegraph that the idea of such a service was “utterly insane.” “This [Mandela] is a man who is a proven and convicted Communist terrorist who never once renounced violence, is responsible for the deaths of a large number of people, and helped bring the [African National Congress] into power that have since destroyed South Africa. Yes, [let us] celebrate that, just because he got the 'racist whites' removed from power. Cultural, Marxist madness.”
Another reader named “HarvestMoon” disputed that Mandela was a great man. “Jailed for terrorism (albeit against the Apartheid regime), he [Mandela] was planning to blow up a packed passenger train,” he wrote. “His restraint on his release from prison was remarkable. But since then, he has done nothing to warrant all this gushing. White farmers continue to be murdered at an alarming rate. [Robert] Mugabe wrecked Zimbabwe while at any time Mandela could have brought him down, simply by turning off the electricity and other essentials. Mandela probably secretly sympathized with his ‘Comrade’ next door. In 5 or 10 years South Africa will be reduced to the level of all the other African basket cases. Awash with natural resources but begging bowls out for the West to feed them.”
A reader for a South African newspaper suggested that another prominent figure from that country, former Prime Minister Jan Smuts, was more deserving of an honor at Westminster Abbey than Mandela. “A far greater man, Jan Smuts, who also fought against the British, and who later spent the WW2 years helping Churchill and England defeat Hitler, was not so [honored],” he said. “Why then must Mandela, who did NOTHING for England, be [honored]?”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.