← Back to portfolio

After Ten Days of Homage, South Africa Buries ‘Father Mandela’

Published on

Giovana Sanchez
From Qunu, South Africa

[Original story in Portuguese]

There is a South African proverb that says that when a great man dies, he does not go alone. It means that the death of someone important carries other souls that protect the deceased and serve as a "cushion" for his or her passage. If that is the case, Nelson Mandela took with him the spirit of an entire nation—if not a great part of the planet.

With a life story that was turned into movies and books and became an example for others, Mandela was able to unite a country divided between whites and blacks and make South Africans believe they could win the game—and build a better country. The impression one has observing farewells to Mandela in the streets is that, at least in South Africa, the lyrics of one of the most frequently chanted songs of the last ten days are true: "there is no one like him."

Since the 5th, when the leader died at 95 years of age, the country has mourned Mandela’s loss by celebrating his life. Mandela's name appears among the tuned singing in the streets, in photos and pictures displayed in shops and hotels, stamped on T-shirts, banners and billboards from Johannesburg to Pretoria - where G1 went.

Memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto (Giovana Sanchez/G1)

Among what people say about Madiba (name of the Mandela clan and how he is affectionately known), the most common words are "father" and "liberator." Indeed, for the vast black majority in the country—75% of the population—Mandela represented the end of a segregationist regime that imposed restrictions on traveling, studying, walking and existing as a citizen for non-white people. For 46 years.

Madiba’s three farewells

The current government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s party, has organized three official ceremonies to mourn the leader. The first, a memorial in the stadium where the 2010 World Cup final took place, in Johannesburg, disappointed the exultant population, most of which was stuck taking early morning trains, just as if it were any other work day—while there were hope that the government would declare a national Holiday, it never happened

The 90,000-capacity stadium, which was occupied almost halfway, shook with typical songs and dances before the ceremony began. But what was to be a celebration of the people was no more than a repetition of formal speeches—topped off by a false interpreter of sign language.

Some speeches were cheered—such as that of US President Barack Obama, and surprisingly, that of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. Others were not even heard—like that of President Dilma Rousseff's, translated into English at an inaudible volume.

South African president Jacob Zuma has perhaps faced his worst humiliation ever since he was elected, with almost unanimous boos -- a display of falling popularity following corruption scandals that divide the party.

The second farewell was the viewing of the body at the executive headquarters in Pretoria. For two and a half days, during business hours from Wednesday to Friday, South Africans could try for a place in the huge line that formed to pass by Mandela’s body, walking, as stopping was prohibited. But according to government accounts, only 100,000 succeeded. A small sampling of the “liberator’s” admirers.

The last goodbye took place on Sunday via television. Mandela's funeral took place in Qunu, the small village where he grew up. A pilgrimage was expected on the road, but in the end, few were determined to endure the hot sun when the closest they could get to the body was a tent that was miles away.

This Monday (16th) is a holiday in South Africa, which commemorates the Battle of the Bloody River, a fight between the Boers and the Zulu Empire in the 19th century. It was the day chosen by the “radical Mandela" to launch his armed struggle against the Apartheid in 1961, before being arrested. It was also the date chosen by the "Mandela-peace-and-love" as National Reconciliation Day, after his release and presidency. And this Monday it will be the first time South Africa has celebrated the holiday without Mandela himself.