Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and Handel’s Messiah

There is no doubt that the reaction to Mandela's death will reflect his values of reconciliation, understanding and harmony.

 

It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. As the choir finally arrived at the Hallelujah chorus, the audience rose as one. The Cape Town City Hall does not posses the greatest acoustics, but its slightly faded interior brightened with the soaring notes. The city’s Philharmonia Choir has performed Handel’s Messiah every Easter since 1968. Then the audience would have been exclusively white. Today it is thoroughly multiracial and as the packed hall finally shuffled out, there was a warm buzz of an evening well spent. The tenor, Thembinkosi Mgetyengana, still studying at the University of Cape Town, had been particularly well received.

The City Hall has seen its fair share of illustrious guests. The Queen celebrated her twenty-first birthday here in 1947. The mayoral parlour – with its magnificent wood panelling – was redecorated specially for the occasion. On the wall an oil painting of the warship that had brought her to these shores, is depicted docked with the face of Table Mountain towering above it. On the shelf, there is a black and white photograph of Princess Elizabeth in a flowing party dress, smiling just a little nervously.

On her twenty-first birthday, on the 21 April 1947, the princess was touring South Africa with her parents and younger sister. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, she spoke of dedicating her life to the service of the Commonwealth. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belongs,” she said.

But it is for another, more famous speech, for which this Town Hall is best known. Just below the mayoral parlour, up a short flight of steps from the street, is the modest balcony that was once the centre of world attention. It was from here, on Sunday 11 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela made his first public address after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. The Grand Parade, laid out before the City Hall, was packed with more than 250,000 people. The speech was televised live around the world.

Mandela, his voice ringing with emotion, told the vast audience, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” He went on to thank the millions who had “campaigned tirelessly” for his release, before addressing people the City of Cape Town itself. “I extend special greetings to the people of Cape Town, the city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners.”

Today, at 94, Nelson Mandela is once more back in hospital, suffering from pneumonia. It is the third time he’s been treated in an undisclosed hospital in the past year. The South African public are given brief, reassuring bulletins on his condition, but it is no longer in the headlines or the topic of conversation. Most people seem resigned that the man who so inspired the country is now in some sort of transition between this world and the next. It has been years since he took an active part in politics and even glimpses of Mandela in public have been rare events. World leaders have, sometimes, been allowed to visit him, but even these have become increasingly infrequent.

It is, perhaps, the calm before the storm. The international media have been preparing for the Mandela death for years. Achieves have been trawled, locations recced, guests booked. Days of non-stop coverage have been meticulously planned. Even the Mandela’s old party – the ANC – is said to have quietly appointed a public relations firm to handle the avalanche of media attention that his demise is certain to unleash.

One question almost every journalist has been asked for years is: what will happen when Mandela goes? The seldom articulated implication is clear – will the reconciliation that he preached be swept away in a tide of black anger? It is not difficult to find websites predicting just such an outcome. One suggests 70,000 will be killed in a Communist inspired plot.

While predicting the future is always a mug's game, this kind of speculation is no more than far-right hysteria. No one doubts that Mandela’s death will be met with a vast outpouring of emotion from ordinary South Africans – of all races. But it will be tempered by the values that he stood for: of reconciliation, understanding and harmony among his people. The country’s institutions are sound and its roots are deep. They will survive even the passing of its most revered son.   

Nelson Mandela speaking on a trip back to Robben Island in 2003. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle