Mandela memorial service could be venue for subtle diplomacy

Analysts say Mandela's legacy of bringing opposing forces together could provide 'political cover' for symbolic gestures

A painting with, left to right, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Barack Obama, outside the home of former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.
Themba Hadebe/AP

More than 100 current and former heads of state descended on South Africa for Tuesday's memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the beloved former president renowned for his capacity to reconcile hardliners across political boundaries – not just within the “Rainbow Nation” but on the world stage, too.

That legacy will be evident when a broad spectrum of foreign dignitaries attend the service at FNB Stadium in Soweto, where Mandela made his last major public appearance during the 2010 World Cup final. There they’ll be joined by potentially hundreds of thousands – regular South African citizens and global celebrities alike – to celebrate the life of the Nobel Laureate credited with ending Apartheid.

As of noon on Monday, 91 current heads of state and 10 former heads of state had confirmed they would pay their respects in Soweto, South African Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane told reporters in Johannesburg.

"The fact that international leaders are making their way to South Africa at such short notice reflects the special place president Nelson Mandela holds in the hearts of people around the globe," he added.

Click here for Al Jazeera's coverage of Nelson Mandela's legacy

But there is also speculation the service will provide opportunity for global politicking, especially between leaders of countries who do not have diplomatic relations – the U.S. and Cuba, for instance.

Ex-diplomats and political analysts say world leaders will be wary of politicizing the Mandela service, but that it could nevertheless provide a venue for subtle symbolic gestures or even secretive sideline talks that would otherwise be impossible.

Daniel Levy, Middle East Director at the European Council for Foreign Relations and a former Israeli negotiator and government advisor, told Al Jazeera the service could provide "political cover" for politicking if leaders choose to spin their gestures as something "Mandela would have wanted."

“There’s a lot of happenstance involved – where people happen to be placed, who happens to pass through, what motorcade happens to arrive at the same time,” Levy said. “But if there’s mutual interest, you can get beyond that happenstance.”

One place happenstance will not be required is at Tuesday's service, as President Barack Obama is slated to speak along with Cuban President Raul Castro. Two men whose countries cut off diplomatic relations decades ago will find themselves sharing a global stage to pay their respects — and potentially rub shoulders.

Also speaking in Soweto will be Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled her last scheduled visit to the White House in October after news broke that the NSA was monitoring her personal communications and intercepting data from Brazilian Internet users.

U.S. relations with Brazil have soured since news of the scandal broke, with Rousseff using her platform at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September to launch a tirade against the U.S. for illegal espionage of its supposed allies.

A handshake at most

But the highest-profile political storyline could be the U.S.-Iran détente, which some say could play out as a significant U.S. contingent, including Obama and three former presidents, have a rare chance to interact with officials from Tehran.

The highly anticipated handshake between Obama and newly-elected, moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, which failed to occur at the U.N. General Assembly in September, won’t happen this week. Rouhani, who has signaled interest in thawing relations with the U.S. and even spoke to Obama over the phone in September, announced on Monday that he would send a deputy in his stead.

“My deputy, VP for Executive Affairs Mohammed Shariatmadari, to depart for Johannesburg to attend memorial service of Mr. #Mandela,” Rouhani tweeted. The Iranian president did not elaborate on why he would not travel to Johannesburg, but anti-American voices in Tehran have suggested the memorial service could be a diplomatic “trap.”

On Monday morning, hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan warned Rouhani that Obama and the U.S. delegation might corner Rouhani or his officials at the service and lock them into unwanted negotiations. “Some domestic and foreign media outlets are using the funeral ceremony as a pretext to push Rouhani towards a meeting with the head of the Great Satan government,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a former State Department official who is now a fellow with the New America Foundation, said such an encounter was unlikely given the sensitivities. “You want to be wary of politicizing the event,” he said. "Making a breakthrough would invite too much controversy to make it viable."

There will be plenty of logistical obstacles to coordinating a symbolic encounter between world leaders in such a short time frame – some will only be in South Africa for a few hours. Security will also be extremely tight. With that in mind, a grand political breakthrough is not in the works for Johannesburg, said Kurtz-Phelan, who traveled with former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to a number of global summits. But, he added, relationships between world leaders and governments could still be altered.

“The opportunity is more tonal than tactical, it’s not a matter of formal diplomatic breakthroughs but slight shifts in tone,” he told Al Jazeera. “You could imagine a handshake at most, and if you’re talking about Washington-Tehran, Washington-Havana, that would be a significant step.”

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