The author watched all of Joburg — black, white, young, old, women, children — bid goodbye to Mandela.
A moving memorial service in honour of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had just ended at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg. Among those paying homage to the late statesman was Kirti Menon, an activist who made Johannesburg her home in the 1990s. Kirti is the granddaughter of Manilal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s son. “The first time I was introduced to Mandela,” recalled the misty-eyed Menon, “he stopped, turned around and hugged me, saying he had learnt so much from Gandhi. I was so overwhelmed.”
Not since Gandhi has a global peace icon’s passing been so mourned, so honoured across the world.
South African President Jacob Zuma’s euphemistic “critical but stable” updates on Mandela’s health had been rhetoric for weeks after the anti-apartheid hero came home in September following three months of treatment in a Pretoria hospital for a prolonged lung ailment. This should have given the nation enough time to accept his mortality. Or did it?
At midnight on December 6 when Zuma announced that the 95-year-old Madiba (his clan name) had “departed peacefully” in the presence of family and friends, a heaving congregation of mourners — black and white, young and old, women and bleary-eyed children — united in their grief, soon arrived on the doorsteps of Mandela’s Houghton home, thumping chests, chanting prayers, bringing flowers, candles, cards and tears.
I was there too, walking three blocks to the late statesman’s barricaded tree-lined neighbourhood. As a new Johannesburg resident, this unscheduled jaunt, which would have otherwise been undertaken with much fanfare and (justified) apprehension, was worth every furtive step as I knew world history awaited me, up Houghton’s Central Street that cold summer morning.
The previous night, unaware that Mandela had breathed his last a little before 9.00 p.m., South Africa had been celebrating its cricket team’s decimation of India in the first ODI of the month at the Wanderers Stadium — an unsuspecting tribute to a man who loved sport.
Tata (a Xhosa word for father), as Mandela is widely known, is no more. “But just as one can never be ready to let go of a parent or a child, so with Mandela, we can never ever be ready,” said Durban-based political activist (and Menon’s aunt) Ela Gandhi. She is blessed to have seen two legends in her lifetime. One, her grandfather Mahatma Gandhi; and the other, Mandela, who she met for the first time at the Victor Verster prison near Paarl in Cape Town when campaigning for his release. “To have been able to meet him and spend a day with him was awesome. There was such an aura about him.”
The adjectives, the editorials, the eulogies, the nationwide prayer services, and the iconic imagery of South Africa’s first democratically-elected black president streamed onto our iPad screens, into our living rooms and our lives. These telling tributes are not lost on the generation on the cusp of change in Mandela’s rainbow nation.
His departure precedes an election year in which the Born Free generation (those born in post-apartheid South Africa) will — for the first time — exercise its right to vote in 20 years of democracy. Danny Ronnie, a 20-year-old white South African student of politics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, wants to re-attest Mandela’s philosophy of equality. “Thanks to Madiba, South Africa sidestepped racial war. Thanks to him, I have grown up with black, Indian and coloured friends. Not all my classmates are free of racial bias but, hopefully, we will be able to together continue Madiba’s work.”
As a teenager far, far away, my first impressions of Mandela were made during the 1988 monsoons in Kerala, when the newspapers arrived drenched one June morning carrying grainy images of the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. Who was this guy? My curiosity had been stoked; and with more black-and-white visuals emerging of him (tall, the famous fist in the air, suit buttoned, Winnie Mandela by his side) as he stepped out of prison in 1990 — without bitterness despite 27 years of incarceration by the white government — my questions grew. How could he not have any anger towards his oppressors? Privately, I prayed for this man who dismantled apartheid, and rejoiced when he won South Africa’s 1994 elections. Mandela was an enduring enigma. Who would have thought I would move to Johannesburg, come so close, the year Mandela died?
How ironic that it was only a week before Mandela’s demise that his biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom released to audiences in South Africa, although the journey to make the film started during Mandela’s years in prison. The film’s producer, Anant Singh, says the film is “a perpetuation of his legacy”. Enjoying the icon’s stamp of approval, the crew had a wealth of archival material to dig into at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a guardian of his literature, life and legacy in Johannesburg. From fiery — and flawed — revolutionary to racial reconciliator, Mandela — played by the magnificent Idris Elba — ends his journey in his rural homestead in Qunu where in real life too, he will finally be laid to rest. Singh was at the U.K. premiere of the film with Mandela’s daughters Zenani and Zindzi when he received news of his death. “When the screening ended, I had to go up on stage and announce it. It was the most difficult moment of my life.”
As the world descended on South Africa to celebrate him, Mandela memorabilia was all-pervasive. Books, flags, shawls, clothes and coins bearing his face and name are constant reminders that he is no more. Last year, the Reserve Bank honoured him by circulating banknotes featuring him. The ‘46664’ garment line named after Mandela’s Robben Island prison number is another outcome of his brand appeal. Who can forget the colourful silk Batik shirt or ‘Madiba shirt’, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously called “gaudy”? To which Mandela is said to have retorted: “It’s pretty thick coming from a man who wears a dress in public.” No wonder then that Mandela’s fellow prisoner and long-time friend Ahmed Kathrada said that he will remember him as “a politician who can laugh at himself, because that is rare.”
Perhaps that is why there was celebratory singing and dancing, a coming together of community that he advocated, especially in the single-storied Soweto township of Johannesburg where Mandela spent many years in the matchbox-sized #8115 (now a museum) on Vilakazi Street. Visitors paused and broke into sporadic dancing. Strains of ‘Hamba kahle (go well) Madiba’ filled the air. Shrigan Gounder, a 34-year-old investment banker, took time off on a weekday to soak up the sounds. “Everybody wanted to be out, raising a toast to Madiba’s life. The atmosphere was so reminiscent of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa that he spearheaded. Very few occasions bring out the true South African spirit, and this was one such.”
Yet, a sombre mood continued to envelop the Nelson Mandela Square near Johannesburg’s posh Sandton City mall, a raucous hub duringweekends. Visitors quietly queued up to take pictures next to Mandela’s six-metre bronze statue, placed floral tributes, and signed condolence books.
Judy Calica, a 30-something worker from the Philippines, was inconsolable. Blessed to have had not one but two chance meetings (at a grocery store and at a public rally) with the country’s most famous citizen, she said: “Both times, I met the man, not the politician, always ready with a smile.” Her thoughts echoed through the crowd. Hubert Tshiswaka, a 43-year-old human rights lawyer from Congo, said: “True, we still have issues of poverty and inequality, but we have to continue Madiba’s legacy. If we fail him, we go back 50 years.” Naser Ftis, a Libyan businessman all the way from Tripoli, said: “The world has lost the last great icon of the last century.”
As I prepare to leave the mall with copious quotes from ordinary people whose life Mandela touched in more ways than he knew, I noticed a black woman in a jaded jacket and torn shoes, too austere for a shopping mall, hunched over a photo of Mandela, clutching a small bouquet of Protea and pink roses wrapped in foil. She placed the flowers by the photo, lit a candle, said a prayer, cried a little and scribbled “1918 forever” on a piece of paper. In her mind, she had already given Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela his most befitting farewell.