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Honouring a man of self-sacrifice with a selfie

All right.

First off to the question you're all not asking: "Who are the two weird guys muscling in on Helle Thorning Schmidt's selfie?" On your left (strangely), one Mr David Cameron who can't believe his luck at making the same shot as the glamorous blonde Danish premier and, on your right, superpower superstar Barack Obama.

Just as the selfie - a lovingly taken snap of yourself - has become the official word of the year, so has the likeness of the aforementioned trio leapt to the top of the selfie online chart. A pity, all the same, that they happened to be at a memorial service at the time. A memorial service for someone now routinely name-checked as the most important world statesman since Ghandi.

Yet, the self-obsessed contemporary world being as it is, there is now a Tumblr page devoted to the funeral "selfie" where bright young things, unable to cope with being parted from social media outlets for an hour or so, upload images of themselves behaving badly at Gramp's last hurrah.

There is a case for the defence, however, in this latest manifestation of mobile mania.

Like the millions of us who tuned into the event designed to honour the memory of Nelson Mandela, the presidents, prime ministers, diplomats and occasional despots probably felt a pressing need to relieve the tedium of grindingly awful political speeches from self-important suits not remotely fit to tie the great man's laces.

Unlike the rest of us, they could not retreat for a cuppa until it was time for another song. The crowd, singing and dancing in the rain, knew exactly what Madiba The Memorial Musical should sound like, but similar joyous tributes were not on the podium menu. Not, at least, until the irrespressible Desmond Tutu essayed a Nelsonesque jig.

And Mr Obama can be forgiven much in the way of etiquette slippage on the back of a truly memorable address, made all the more stunning by the paucity of soaring rhetoric available from any other quarter.

However much of it he penned himself, it was a brave speech reminding his audience that claiming Mandela as inspiration required more than mouth music from heads of states who have little compunction about chucking their own dissidents behind bars and mislaying the keys.

(Memo to actors on the world stage: do not appear on the same bill as animals, children or - especially - Barack Obama who, when on form, can still deliver that mesmerising mix of preacher man and philosopher).

We can cut some slack to the organisers too, caught in the headlights of a thousand media cameras, desperate to have their country and young democracy bathed in a favourable light, anxious to infuse some solemnity lest they be accused of throwing an inappropriate party.

However, we could have done without the recital of the country of origin of every blessed "honoured" guest. Do we really need to know that the Grand Duke of the mighty nation of Luxembourg made it to the stadium on time? Or the procession of faith leaders who chose long-winded exhortation over blessed brevity?

Jacob Zuma, Mandela's next but one successor, might well have wished his limo had got lost, given the roasting he got from the terracings. The more the heroic self sacrifice of South Africa's first black president was lauded, the sharper the contrast became with the man who is allegedly something of a stranger to personal probity.

Yet, in truth, it was probably the kind of occasion that could never live up to its billing. How many hosts would like to have 100-plus world leaders show up in their living room at the same time? The really memorable stuff took place off stage, including a wonderful flashmob choir in Jo'burg's Woolworths giving it laldy before handing out sweets and flowers to entranced morning shoppers. Check it out on YouTube and give yourself a treat.

So maybe the memories of the memorial we should hold on to were the thousands who poured out to places connected with his life, and, in songs and prayers, music and dance, celebrated the life that had transformed theirs.

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