Monday, December 9, 2013

nelson mandela 1918-2013

Being a visitor in a country in mourning is an indescribable experience. The news of Nelson Mandala's death was released here late on Thursday evening. South Africans immediately started gathering in places of importance in his life and memorial spaces here in the city of Johannesburg and its suburbs.

His home in the suburb of Houghton is a short drive from my guest house. I went early Saturday morning to pay my respects. Flowers, tributes, and burning candles were already creating an informal memorial. 

I went back in the early afternoon. The number of visitors had substantially increased; and there was a spirit of celebration. There was chanting and dancing. At one point the crowd started singing the national anthem and there were visible signs of emotion on many faces. 

I stopped back to Nelson Mandela's home late on Sunday afternoon. By now the flowers were waist height, eight feet deep, and spanned the entire street. 

On Sunday the number of visitors outside his home was reported to be in the thousands. There is no way to describe or define the crowd, other than to say that in the spirit of Nelson Mandela all knew they would be welcomed and thus, all came. In the crowd, I heard a multitude of languages. In addition to English, I heard traditional African languages, French, Afrikaans, German, and some languages I didn't recognize. Every race and creed came to lay flowers, light candles, leave tributes, and celebrate a life.

As a visitor there is a pressure to bear witness - to transfer the experience of this world event to photographs and words for those that are not here. I am in no doubt that the hundreds of the members of the national and international press corps that are here will have better photographs and more eloquent words. But for those that asked, here are a few words and images. 

I overheard a mother respond to her child's question regarding the purpose of the flowers and candles with these words, "We want to celebrate that Madiba is at peace with the ancestors." In the end, that is perhaps the best description of the events taking place here in South Africa this week. We are celebrating the legacy of a life selflessly dedicated to the advancement of a country and its people.

There will be time next week and in the months that follow to discuss and determine how this 20-year old democracy will fare when Nelson Mandela's iconic role in the anti-apartheid struggle, powerful message of forgiveness, and charismatic personality begins to distance from the current day African National Congress. The struggle continues here and there are many days when it is not certain that the South Africans will have the will to carry on the work of Nelson Mandela and the many other freedom fighters. 

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