He was known worldwide for bringing justice to a land where it seemed impossible.
But those who best knew Nelson Mandela prefer to tell stories about the joy of the man himself — and especially his sense of humor.
One can only imagine, then, that Mandela might be laughing to his very soul as the whole world turns his burial into a circus.
All the memorials and tributes back in Johannesburg and the capital city of Pretoria allowed millions to offer Mandela the tribute he clearly deserved.
But come Sunday when he finally is laid to rest, the scene will shift to Mandela’s quiet tribal home — a village called Qunu with just 200 or so residents in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa — and proceedings could sway from order to total confusion.
Of course, the world may see nothing at all.
Qunu has been covered by mist and fog for most of a week, and the forecast suggests it will remain gray and almost invisible on Sunday.
Rain has turned the area’s dirt roads and fields into a sea of mud.
Given Mandela’s penchant for playing a joke, perhaps he’s decided a parting scene from a Marx Brothers movie would be an appropriate good-bye.
A couple of well-known Manhattanites can testify to the chaos that may be coming to tiny Qunu.
“It will be an unbelievable nightmare, logistically,” said Shirley Baker, former president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.
Shirley and her husband, Dr. Richard Baker – an orthopedic surgeon who’s a member of the K-State Sports Hall of Fame – visited Qunu in 2007.
“The area is the poorest of the poor. It’s where we lived while Richard practiced orthopedics for five weeks at Bedford Hospital,” Shirley said. “It could be interesting to see this unfold. There are no five-star restaurants. There are no restaurants, period.”
Richard Baker was supposed to work at the new Nelson Mandela Hospital in 2007, but — believe it or not — the facility couldn’t open on time because all the bedding had been stolen.
Thus Baker wound up at Bedford, which Shirley described as “the busiest trauma center in South Africa.”
While Richard and Shirley were working there in the Transkei region of the country, they heard of ambitious plans for Mandela’s boyhood home to become a conference center, and the entire area turned into something of a tourist destination.
The Bakers wondered if such plans could turn out to be something of a pipedream — and events this week seem to be proving them correct.
Quite a few international journalists rented houses in Qunu when Mandela’s illness turned critical, thinking they’d be at the center of things for his funeral.
Instead, they’ve been rousted out by police and given the strangest explanation by Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane, who announced that visitors to Qunu were guilty of “violating protocol.”
Except…no protocols had been established.
Contradictory announcements from the government, massive satellite trucks stuck in a couple feet of mud, the lone regional highway blocked by armed guards, fog rendering an otherwise gorgeous countryside invisible.
Sunday’s supposedly dignified event already seems destined to become something straight from “Alice in Wonderland.”
Perhaps Mandela really would be amused by it all.
Richard and Shirley Baker will no doubt be sharing that feeling.