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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood