In Memoriam

South Africa Kicks Off Week Of Mourning Mandela

As heads of state and tens of thousands of mourners converge on South Africa to pay their respects to the late leader, regular citizens are grappling with Madiba’s legacy.

12.09.13 6:55 PM ET

As I stood in line at my bank last Friday morning, the morning after Nelson Mandela died, all the television screens were tuned to the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s blanket coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death. The shuffling Friday queue—a neat cross-section of Cape Town society—paid scant attention to the choirs singing funereal hymns, the interview with an elderly Indian woman who recounted how she cooked a pot of curry for the young Mandela, or the montage of the iconic photographs that had mythologised Mandela even before his death. But when the broadcast went to the streets, and specifically to small crowd knotted around a huge new statue of Mandela in the city of Bloemfontein, people looked up: “I’m here because my son came running in this morning and told me Madiba is late,” a black woman said on the TV screen—'late’ being the South African euphemism for ‘dead’. The woman continued: “He said that he was worried that maybe apartheid will come back.”

The bank line erupted in giggles, and people immediately began speaking to one another. An elderly ‘coloured’ woman said, to no-one in particular, “No, that little boy has nothing to worry about.”

When I intercepted an eye-roll between two black workers which seemed to disagree, one of the men—in blue overalls—said to me, “I miss the old man already.” I readily agreed, and I made bold to verbalise what I assumed to be his skepticism: “There’s still so much to do to make this society equal, though.”

“Yes of course there is much to do,” he responded, with a thick Xhosa accent. “But look at us here today, laughing together, rather than fearing each other.”

He was not wrong: 40 years ago, we would not have been allowed to be in the same queue in the first place; 20 years ago, he would have been a bold man indeed to contradict a white stranger. Standing at the bank, it was hard not to think back to that iconic moment of strangers in queues talking to one another across the colour line: the 1994 election which brought Mandela to power.

There is some talk, particularly in the foreign media, about how South Africa is harbouring a “Rainbow Nation” spirit once more, where people are smiling and talking and communicating with each other across the barriers of race and class. But although I am sitting in a memorial meeting at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory as I am writing this, listening to Archbishop Desmond Tutu pulling a racially-mixed audience of about five hundred onto its feet to shout, “We Are Very Special People!” to capture the spirit of Mandela, this does not feel like 1994 to me.  It does not even feel like 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup, and when there was an air of such heightened jubilation in the country, it seemed as if we might, finally, be reaching for the pot of gold at the other side of the Rainbow; if the “Madiba Miracle” —tarnished by the shabby politics and unequal economic growth of the intervening 15 years—might actually be true.

Things might change tomorrow when 70 heads of state—including three American presidents—and tens of thousands of South Africans converge on the country’s signature “Calabash” World Cup Stadium outside Soweto for a massive public memorial. But for the most part, South Africans are going about their daily business, finishing up a busy year and preparing for the summer Christmas holidays, when everything shuts down for a few weeks.

The working year traditionally ends on December 16, a public holiday, that initially commemorated the Battle of Blood River between the Boers and the Zulus, was then chosen by Mandela to launch the armed struggle against the apartheid state in 1960, and then reoriented by Mandela, once he became South Africa’s first democratic president, as the National Day of Reconciliation. The timing of Mandela’s death could not be better, symbolically.

But still, people are busy at this time of year. “There have been muted responses here,” my friend Mazibuko emailed me from his rural village in Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape, not too far from where Mandela will be buried at Qunu on Friday. “People are just proceeding with their lives which at this time of the year include many long-planned social/cultural activities.” Now is the time when people go home to their villages; it is the time to prepare for weddings, and initiation ceremonies, and large family gatherings. Meanwhile, the cities are abustle with the energy of people closing up shop.

Certainly, a minority of people have been moved to attend special prayer and memorial services, or to lay wreathes outside of Mandela’s home in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, or to phone in to the talk-radio shows, or to gather in public spaces that are reminiscent of Mandela, such as his Soweto street or—bizarrely—Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, a glitzy shopping centre branded by an awful giant sculpture of him.  Many people are sad, or thoughtful, or aware of the hand of history upon them. We know the world is paying attention to us again, and this cannot but trigger memories of 1994 and 2010—and make us wonder about our destinies, individual and national.

We are also subject to wall-to-wall coverage, on every television channel and radio station. There is, inevitably, a lot of self-serving humbug and a lot of tedious pap. But there is also a surprisingly high level of reflection, and fascinating history, including many excellent documentaries about Mandela, and rarely-heard archives. As I was driving from the airport last night, I heard an important speech of his from the ‘50s, about why blacks should not fear white fear of their own aspirations to freedom: I had read it, several times, but I had never heard it before, and I marveled at the taut anger in the young man’s voice. It made me appreciate, even more, the reconciliation he had subsequently wrought. Then, this morning as I was driving back from getting media accreditation for the funeral, I heard an elderly white woman talking about grief, comparing the loss of her own father and the nation’s father, and I marvelled at the way South Africans are able to understand themselves within the flow of history.

Still, I have heard more than a few people, of all races, shrug in some kind of befuddlement about what they are expected to feel. “I’m not political,” a motor repairman told me, a little irritated by my solicitations. A friend told me she was feeling rather empty, as she struggled to connect with any real emotion in the shadow of what she was being told she should feel. Another made the salient point that because Mandela has been on life-support for so long anyway, she felt the same way as she had when her own mother died after a long illness: she processed much of her grief before the actual death.

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A black friend was nonplussed by her 18-year-old daughter’s nonchalance: “If it wasn’t for Tata Madiba” [which is how he is known in South Africa], “you would not be going off to study veterinary science next year!” The young woman got it, very quickly, and now she is eagerly joining me at tomorrow’s memorial activities.

How do I feel? I don’t know yet, beyond the deep gratitude for what Mandela gave us, as a people, and what he gave me personally too: I am white, and I am married to a black man. I am free. Sitting here, watching Bishop Tutu dance to the hymns sung by the Soweto Gospel Choir, I find myself moved, connecting to the heightened emotion of this time, but also the unique combination of irreverence and purpose that men like both Tutu and Mandela embody.

Archbishop Tutu began his eulogy, tonight, with a gorgeous joke: “When I was in San Francisco, a woman rushed up and greeted me: ‘Archbishop Mandela!’” He paused for a moment, and let out one of his delighted shrieks: “She won’t make that mistake again!”

Nelson Mandela is dead.

Mark Gevisser will be reporting  from South Africa all week for The Daily Beast as the world mourns Mandela’s passing.