Letter from Johannesburg: The Long Walk to Qunu: Laying Mandela to Rest

JOHNANNESBURG—“A great tree has fallen, he is now going home to rest with his forefathers. We thank them for lending us such an icon.” These words were spoken by Chief Ngangomhlaba Mantanzima, a representative of the Mandela family, to the nearly 5,000 people gathered to say goodbye to a giant of a man. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was interred on December 15, 2013, in his childhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, South Africa after a 10-day mourning period. This may seem like a long time, but for a man as influential, esteemed, and beloved as this one, it may not be nearly long enough.

Ten Days of Mourning

Madiba (his clan name) died on a Thursday evening and as the state made arrangements for his burial—a memorial, a viewing, a burial—people began flocking to his home in Houghton in the Northern Suburb of Johannesburg. By Friday morning there was a growing pile of flowers in front of his house, a police presence, and several dozen mourners, not to mention national and international media. By the 10th day of mourning, the small pile had grown to a huge mound as tens of thousands of people came to the house to pay homage to the man they called Tata – father.

Mandela had not been well for some time. His hospitalization this past summer shocked the nation, but in some ways it also started to prepare them for the emotional upheavals his death would have. To the South Africans he was more than a former president; more than an activist; more than an advocate of unity and forgiveness in a nation divided and damaged by decades of racist policies and minority rule. He was a guiding figure, a man who gave up his life (27 years in prison and a lifetime as an icon) for the betterment of those around him.

Over the course of the official mourning period, the state arranged a series of national events: a State Memorial at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto, visitation and viewing at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and a state funeral in Qunu, his childhood home.

The State Memorial:

Obamatory and Zuma booing

The big event of the week was the official State Memorial, held on Tuesday, December 10 – International Human Rights Day and 20 years to the day that Mandela accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. It was supposed to give the public an opportunity to mourn Mandela’s death, but as the ceremony progressed it became increasingly clear that the memorial would be more an opportunity for world leaders and celebrities to make an appearance than for citizens to pay tribute.

The event was held at the FNB Stadium, aka Soccer City, located just outside Soweto. Anticipating huge crowds, the state arranged for screenings of the memorial in two other stadiums in Johannesburg – Ellis Park and Orlando Stadium. But the inclimate weather and an inadequate transportation system made it difficult for people to attend.

It was a cold and rainy day, unseasonably so for Johannesburg where December is the height of summer and days are usually brilliantly sunny. As people continued to file into the stadium, seeking shelter in the upper levels, down below on the bright emerald green soccer pitch dignitaries and guests of honour made their way under umbrellas to take their seats.

The ceremony began with an address from the program director, deputy president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa. Following his introduction, tributes were given by family and friends, including Rivonia Trial co-accused Andrew Mlangeni and some of Mandela’s grandchildren.

Then came the dignitaries

Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon made a moving speech, saying: “It’s a wondrous display, this rainbow nation. In nature, a rainbow emerges from rain and the sun. It is a symbol of the gratitude that I feel today. I hope you will be able to see the rainbow soon. Through the rain of sadness and the sun of celebration, a rainbow is in our hearts.”

Other dignitaries spoke, including Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil and Li Yuanchao, vice-president of China, but the masterful oratory of US President Barack Obama overshadowed them all.

Obama took the stage to a cheering crowd and gave a rousing address, speaking of Mandela’s great achievements, but also of his humanity and belief that in order to achieve anything you had to take care of those around you: “There is a word in South Africa—Ubuntu—a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

Despite Obama’s brilliant oratory, the most important participants in the day were the crowds of mourners who made sure their presence was felt, despite being high up in the stands. When speeches got tedious they sang and chanted loudly, drowning them out. And when South African president Jacob Zuma’s face appeared on the big screen broadcasting the event, they booed him, more than once. Zuma is currently embroiled in a spending scandal after it was reported that he spent 206 million rand ($21 million) on “security upgrades” to his home in Nkandla. The upgrades included several heli-pads, an amphitheatre and a swimming pool. The people, though almost entirely left out of the proceedings, had their say in the end.

Lying in State at the Union Buildings

The day after the memorial, the official mourning events were moved to Pretoria where Mandela was to lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings, the seat of South African government and the site of Mandela’s inauguration as president in 1994.

Mourners lined up for visitation, waiting hours for a moment with Madiba. Each day tens of thousands of people were turned away. An estimated 15,000 people viewed Mandela on Wednesday, with numbers increasing on subsequent days but there was never enough time or capacity for everyone in the line to have their moment with Mandela.

For many, the long queues were reminiscent of the long line-ups of people coming to vote in the 1994 elections, the first fair and free elections in South Africa. On Friday, the final day of viewing, it was reported that by mid-morning the line to spend a moment viewing Mandela’s casket was over 90,000 people long and the shuttle buses being used to transport people to the Union Buildings from the parking areas had stopped running.

The Burial: Return to Qunu

Mandela was buried on Sunday, December 15 in his home village of Qunu. Like most people in Johannesburg, I watched the proceedings on TV. The streets were silent as a nation observed a ceremony that was full of military pomp and traditional ritual, some performed in private, out of the media gaze.

Qunu is a tiny village, with a population of only 213 (though this does make it larger than my home village of Sandfield) and the community lacks the amenities needed to host such a massive event. Most of the foreign and local guests flew in to the nearby town of Mthatha (96,000) and were driven to the funeral site. Those present included close relatives, African leaders, veterans of the ANC, and celebrities like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.

Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ANC, acted as one of the masters of ceremonies. “The person who is lying here is South Africa’s greatest son,” he said, as the service got under way.

The casket, draped in a South African flag, rested on a several cow skins and guests spoke in front of a huge portrait of Mandela, surrounded by 95 white candles, one for each year of his remarkable life. The ceremony lasted about 2.5 hours and proved to be what the memorial should have been—an intimate and tender homage to the dearly departed.

Mandela’s close friend and comrade in the anti-apartheid struggle Ahmed Kathrada delivered a moving eulogy, speaking frankly of Madiba’s decline in later years:

“The last time I saw Madiba alive,” he said, “was when I visited him in hospital. I was filled with an overwhelming mixture of sadness, emotion and pride. He tightly held my hand until the end of my brief visit. It was profoundly heartbreaking.”

But ultimately his message was one of unity and hope, as he spoke about the how Mandela’s death brought the country together:

“Today, mingled with our grief is the enormous pride that one of our own has during your life, and now in your death, united the people of South Africa and the entire world on a scale never experienced before in history. Remarkably, in these last few days, the masses of our people, from whatever walk of life, have demonstrated how very connected they feel to you; how the story of your life is their story and how their story is your story.”

After the speeches were finished and the prayers said, pallbearers walked with the coffin towards the burial site as helicopters whirred overhead, dangling the South African flag. Cannons fired a 21-gun salute, and after the flag draped over the coffin was removed, the media video feed was cut off: the lowering of the casket and the burial of an icon was closed to the public.

If everyone is mourning, why are they singing?

On Sunday I walked up to Mandela’s house, which is in the same neighbourhood I live in when I’m in Johannesburg. The streets were still blocked off and people were still pouring in to pay their respects, the side streets packed with parked cars and the pile of flowers and candles growing even bigger, physical evidence that people were taking a moment out of their everyday to honour Mandela’s memory.

Thinking about the events of the past week and a half, the assembly of so many dignitaries and celebrities, the massive international media presence, and the outpouring of grief and joy from the people of South Africa, I was struck by the dual nature of mourning in this country. There was the public Mandela, the man who took his place as an icon on the global stage, and there was the personal Mandela, the father of a nation of people looking for a way to heal from decades of mistrust and misdeeds.

Mandela was a man mourned deeply, but he was celebrated just as strongly, and there was as much singing and dancing as there was weeping and wailing at his memorials. It has been an honour to be in Johannesburg these past 10 days, to be a part of remembering Mandela, and to bid him farewell in my own small way.

What now?

Mandela was a man who brought a nation together at time when it seemed an impossibility, setting an example by turning the other cheek, and not simply metaphorically—he invited one of his jailors to his inauguration ceremony. However, if you look at the South Africa of today, many of the problems Mandela inherited still exist. Madiba’s role as a guiding figure was always more spiritual than it was practical. South Africa remains a country with a huge gap between rich and poor, where education and health care for the masses is lacking, and whose current leader seems to be more concerned with building a castle to live in rather and a country for his people.

It’s unclear what the future will bring, what life after Mandela will be for South Africans. One can only hope that the people of this country can separate the ANC party of today from the legacy of Mandela when it comes time to vote in next year’s elections. Madiba’s passing marks then end of a generation of ANC leaders who fought for a clear goal—equality. The time has come for the new generation to take up the reins.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Expositor is pleased to welcome journalist Medeine Tribinevicius back to these pages after nearly 15 years absence. Ms. Tribinevicius, when she finished her OAC coursework at Manitoulin Secondary School at the end of the first semester in 1998-99 academic year, opted to do a co-op placement at The Expositor for the second semester and then stayed on the staff for a summer job before beginning studies at the University of Toronto. Since graduation and further study, she has travelled and written widely and her travels (with her husband Rich) landed her in South Africa just at this time. She was able to quickly obtain press credentials for the Nelson Mandela funeral and her report on this major world event appears here.

Medeine Tribinevicius