A journey to a land that will forever belong to Mandela

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Capetonians make an event of sunsets.

Before dusk, friends gather with food and wine on blankets and lawn chairs to watch the red-orange sun ooze into the ocean until Table Mountain gets eaten by night.

“Sundowners,” they call them — hours-long celebrations of light-to-dark across their landscape.

Like their countrymen to the north, east and west, the people of South Africa’s “Mother City” have, for 10 days, basked in the great light that was and mourned the darkness that will be life without Nelson Mandela.

He will be buried Sunday in his ancestral home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province, about 750 miles from Cape Town.

While the world has celebrated and grieved for Mandela — iconic leader, heroic human-rights activist, champion of freedom — from the shadows of a pedestal since he died Dec. 5, South Africans have wept intensely personal tears for the man missing from the head of the table.

For their “Tata.”

Father.

Daddy.

Granddaddy.

Young or old, black, white or brown — South Africans’ love for Mandela is fervent. Their appreciation, profound. Their sadness, acute.

“He was like a father to me,” said 24-year-old Siviwe Ndzezo, who carried a homemade sign of Mandela-related newspaper articles taped to cardboard at a memorial event Tuesday. “I’m very sorry because I feel the way he felt. I miss him.”

A story inside The Times newspaper here Wednesday called the shared sense of overwhelming grief “post-traumatic Mandela disorder.” It said a 24-hour command center staffed with 66 social workers had been made available to help people deal with the death of Mandela. Two telephone numbers to call for help were printed at the end.

“Tata Nelson Mandela was dearly loved by all South Africans, and the effects of his passing on our society cannot be underestimated,” Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini told the newspaper.

Over and over, this is what the people of South Africa said to an American who asked: In losing “Madiba,” they’d lost a member of their family.

“Madiba came to represent the South African miracle. He was a steady hand on the tiller; the knowledge that he was around stilled fear and uncertainty,” said Brendan von Essen, 25, who grew up in Johannesburg and lives in Cape Town.

“I think it was this feeling of safety and inspiration that he instilled that made his loss feel so personal to each of us. It has been a surreal experience this last week mourning what feels like a personal loss but simultaneously knowing that everyone else in the country is going through the exact same thing as you.”

Accidental witness

I flew to South Africa on Dec. 5 with three other journalists, from Atlanta and New York, on a five-day tour to explore the wine, food and culture of Cape Town.

I’d hoped to come back with two stories — one for the January issue of the Indulge luxury magazine and the other, a Life & Arts story pegged to the Christmas Day opening of the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. “Something Mandela-related,” I was saying.

When our 15-hour flight from New York landed in Johannesburg just after 8 a.m. Dec. 6, the captain came over the speaker.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have some sad news,” he said cautiously. “While we know it was … inevitable … Nelson Mandela passed away last night.”

Weary travelers hung their heads in near silence as they exited the plane. We journalists shook ours in disbelief.

“Something Mandela-related,” indeed, would need telling.

At Passport Control, the agent asked the purpose for my trip.

“I’m a journalist,” I said, “writing an article.”

“About?”

“The wine and food in Cape Town.”

He looked at me, but not quite in the eye, and handed back my passport.

“We’ve got a story for you now.”

“Mandela,” I said. “I know. How do you feel about it?”

He dropped his eyes.

“Very sad.”

As we boarded the plane for the short trip to Cape Town, flight attendants handed out local newspapers. On the cover was a photo of Mandela’s face against a black background, with the headline “The world weeps” in capital letters. Inside were tributes, columns and news stories about the reaction to his death — including republished tweets — all under the heading “Our Beloved Tata.”

He died at almost 9 p.m. the night before, I thought. The world may not have been ready, but the newspaper had been prepared.

The Oprah connection

I read the paper cover to cover on the plane and realized how little of the story I knew. I remember learning about something called apartheid — as I understood it, South Africa’s system of keeping blacks and whites apart — when I was in grade school. I knew Mandela had fought for equal rights for nonwhites, had been imprisoned for much of his life, had been the country’s president, had won a Nobel Peace Prize. I knew he was a hero.

Most of what I knew about Mandela, I thought with a giggle, I knew because of Oprah.

In my hotel room, I switched on the TV and would seldom turn it off for five days; the 24/7 coverage from around the country became riveting. If commercials aired during the week, I don’t remember one.

TV news covered any and every possible angle, yet unlike wall-to-wall coverage of most “celebrity deaths,” this never seemed saturated.

There were just that many stories to tell:

• Fellow political prisoners recalled how Mandela shared what little food he got with others, and how he gave back the long pants he was given by jailers when he found out the other black prisoners had to wear shorts.

• News reports talked of the millions of tribute flowers people were buying — especially white lilies, a traditional mourning bloom — and how Mandela would have loved the business that bouquets were bringing to local flower markets.

• One reporter went to hospitals to interview new mothers a little sad that their babies had been born on the day Mandela had died. People wondered whether the name “Nelson” might start trending.

At dinner that night, a local resident said: “This is our JFK moment. We will always remember where we were when we heard Mandela died.”

Mandela lived 95 years, most of them fighting hard for one cause. He’d accomplished the goal and fulfilled the dream, and people were living the result.

People, I would find, don’t rush to talk about life in South Africa “before freedom.”

One day, I asked a brown-skinned cabdriver if things were different then, if they were harder then. He said “yes” to both questions and said no more.

A middle-aged white woman admitted in a near whisper, with tears in her eyes, that she grew up being afraid of blacks.

Von Essen said he was born in the late ’80s, at the height of apartheid, with the country on the verge of civil war.

“I was destined to grow up in a racially divided society defined by fear and hate,” he said. “As a white male, I was required to join the security forces when I was 18 and spend two years serving in, most likely, the army or the police, or up to seven years in prison as a conscientious objector.”

But everything changed when apartheid ended and the country held its first free general election in 1994.

“I was able to grow up in a country that had hope and wasn’t ravaged by fear of the other,” he said. “I could have friends of different races and cultures. I could travel overseas. I could be proud of my country, a luxury my parents never had.”

Tributes abound

Throughout the city, Capetonians set up makeshift memorials and tributes. At Nobel Square on the busy Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, statues of the country’s four Nobel laureates attract picture-seekers anyway. But each day, the ground beneath the Mandela sculpture was flooded with flowers, notes and trinkets. One night, someone placed a red heart wreath in his right hand and a South African flag in his left.

In front of the bustling V&A Waterfront shopping mall stood a giant poster board printed with the words “Thank you, Tata, for the wonderful journey. We will miss you.” It was filled with colorful scribbled messages — in English, French, Afrikaans and other languages.

Inside the mall, retailers hung signs of tribute. In the window of the skin-care store The Body Shop, a large black sign in the front window said simply, “Madiba … Rest in peace.”

Around town, South African flags, sometimes whipped about by fierce summer winds, flew at half-staff.

A laser projection of Mandela’s name and face lit up on Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain each night.

Conversations about Mandela could take place at any time, anywhere. Everyone had a story. A thought. A remembrance.

A concierge at my hotel recalled that Mandela, who’d stayed there twice, unnerved his bodyguards because he liked to walk on his own down the street to the dry cleaners or gather among children.

Late Saturday, Long Street resembled New Orleans’ Bourbon Street: Elbow-to-elbow crowds downed shots and lit up things that smelled slightly less than legal, and on balconies facing each other across the street, a “striptease-off” took place in front of a raucous audience.

There, in the corner of one of the “strip scene” balconies, at a bar called the Beer House, I overheard a group of five friends — three black men and two white, all in their 20s and 30s — toasting to “Tata Madiba.”

I asked one of them, a black man named Edgar Semenya, for his thoughts on the leader.

“It’s not really a thought thing. It’s more like a feeling,” he said.

A few hours later, he elaborated with passion. Mandela’s dream for equality in South Africa won’t be fully realized, he said, until hunger and poverty end, until economic freedom is achieved.

“It’s a time for taking inventory in where we’ve been and where we’re going,” he said.

Von Essen, one of the white friends, echoed this idea that young people need and want to continue Mandela’s work.

“There is a sense of responsibility in my generation to continue the work that needs to be done,” he said, “especially those of us that were old enough to have some memories of the ’94 election and watched the country transform as we grew up.”

Robben Island

Sunday, Dec. 8, had been declared a national day of reflection and prayer. I’d hoped I might be able to taxi to a local church service. A morning trip to Robben Island, where Mandela was prisoner No. 46664 for 18 of his 27 years behind bars, it turned out, would be more sacred.

As we pulled away from the waterfront on the 45-minute ferry ride and Table Mountain shrank on the horizon, I breathed in the fishy air and thought about something I’d recently read. Mandela had said that “during the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Bay at the magnificent silhouette of Table Mountain. To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we would one day return.”

The bus approached the limestone quarry, where Mandela and other political prisoners were forced to do hard labor. It came to a stop, and tour guide Wendy Duma did something she usually doesn’t: She exited.

“OK, ladies and gentlemen, usually we respect this site because it’s a sensitive space — a very sensitive space,” she said. “This is where all the political prisoners worked their sweat, tears and blood.”

It wasn’t just hyperbole.

The prisoners used primitive tools, or dug by hand, to chisel away the stone. The sun’s glare off the white rock was so hot and bright that many, including Mandela, suffered permanent eye damage.

Seven armed guards had orders to shoot to death anyone who tried to walk away, she said. A cave inside the quarry became not just a refuge, she said, but also a place of learning. Educated political prisoners would teach uneducated ones how to read and write by drawing in the sand. They nicknamed it the “University of Robben Island.”

A UNESCO Heritage Site, the quarry is usually closed to visitors. Today, though, by special request of other tour groups, we were going to be able to walk to it, observe a moment of silence and sing the South African national anthem.

“Long live the spirit of peace and reconciliation, love live!” Duma cheered at the edge of the quarry.

“Long live!” we responded.

“Love live the spirit of Nelson Mandela, long live!” she cheered.

“Love live!” we cheered back.

A female tourist with a clear soprano voice led the singing of the national anthem, a long piece with verses in five of the 11 recognized languages in the country. I silently recorded the singing on my iPad, while tears welled in my eyes and a lump ached in my throat.

After a moment of silence, a tourist concluded the reverence with, “May his soul rest in peace. Thank you, Tata.”

During the tour inside the maximum-security prison, a political prisoner named Kolekile Mhlana, who’d served time during Mandela’s imprisonment, talked of Mandela’s popularity. Mhlana himself had managed to get a job in the kitchen so he could meet the famous “B section” prisoner.

The group filed quietly past Mandela’s 8-by-8-foot cell, where a single candle burned on the floor next to the only furniture — a small table with a coffee cup, a sanitary can and a sleeping mat. The prison dog kennels were larger than these single-prisoner cells.

On the ferry ride back, we had a chance to write personal messages in a condolence book. I wrote, “May you rest in peace knowing that the next generations are committed to continuing the good work you did — for your country, and for the world. Thank you.”

Watching the memorial

On Tuesday, the day of the national memorial at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, President Barack Obama’s arrival dominated the front pages.

The memorial was live-streamed in Cape Town at a plaza called the Grand Parade, the site of Mandela’s first speech when he was freed from prison. Jumbo television screens broadcast the service, and although the day wasn’t a holiday, thousands showed up.

I hopped in a cab and headed to the plaza with my iPhone, tape recorder and money for a cab ride back to the hotel. The summer sun seared the pavement; the only shade came from tall palm trees. Vendors sold umbrellas, frozen chocolate treats and leopard-print floppy hats.

The crowd sang along to Fort Worth-born gospel singer Kirk Franklin’s refrain “My life is in your hands,” waved flags, held up signs and cheered for the speakers. A fence that looked as long as a football field had been lined with flowers, notes and personal tributes. Bouquets had wilted in the heat, and candles had melted to strings of wax — some, no doubt, had been there for days.

Sydwell Mbune dressed in a curly red, green and yellow wig and wore a South African flag tied around his shoulders like a superhero’s cape. I asked him for a photo and an interview and gave him my notepad so he could spell his name.

He misunderstood my request.

He returned my pages having written this: “This is who we are today as S.A. Black, coloured, Indian and white because of this giant that has fallen and we will [miss] you and remember you forever. Thanks. R.I.P.”

The crowd booed its own president, Jacob Zuma, who many believe is corrupt.

When Obama spoke, he got the cheers of a hero, especially during the parts of his speech in which he referred to or talked directly to the people of South Africa. The next day, the front page of the Cape Times would declare that “U.S. President Barack Obama stole the show with one of his trademark Martin Luther King-style speeches … it was clear from the crowd reaction that Obama was the star attraction.”

Why all the Obama adulation?

Riashna Sithaldeen, a lecturer in the archaeology department at the University of Cape Town who attended the live stream, said it’s simply amazing to South Africans that the most powerful man in the world is black.

Andrew Stevens, a University of Denver student doing an independent service learning course, had been in Cape Town since late November, working for a nonprofit called Equal Education that advocates for equality in education throughout the country. His class had been studying transitional justice and Mandela’s work in South Africa.

“When we came here, we always knew there was a possibility that he would pass away while we were here,” he said during the live stream. “To be here at this time, I think all of us feel so lucky and honored to witness history happening.”

I was feeling the same way.

Leaving with memories

I boarded a plane back home Wednesday, hours before the city’s biggest Mandela-related event — the official memorial, Nelson Mandela: A Life Celebrated — was to take place at Cape Town Stadium. Earlier in the week, reports said 46,000 tickets were available. That morning, I heard 53,000 had been taken.

My long journey across the Atlantic was no less fascinating than the trip had been. By chance, I’d been seated next to a Canadian diplomat, a member of Parliament and former Canadian Attorney General named Irwin Cotler. He’d had a long and distinguished career as an international human-rights lawyer and had served as counsel to prisoners of conscience, including Mandela.

My seatmate had attended the memorial in Johannesburg on Tuesday, and that morning, he and the other members of the Canadian delegation had been among those to see Mandela’s body lying in state in Pretoria.

He said the somberness of the events Wednesday had contrasted starkly with the jubilation and triumph of the celebration Tuesday. Men, young and old, had tears in their eyes. It was as though the finality of his death had set in, he said.

In what would become a serendipitous epilogue to my journey, after 31 hours of travel time to get back to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, I found myself in a taxi with a cabdriver from Ethiopia.

While crawling in traffic on Airport Freeway, he asked where I’d been. I told him South Africa and held up one of the many newspapers I’d lugged home in my overstuffed bag.

His face beamed; he asked whether he could keep one. I politely said no.

Thirty minutes later, nearer my house but still fighting rush hour, he told me he’d moved here five years ago from his homeland for a job, for security, for a better life for his wife and kids.

I began fidgeting in my carry-on. When he pulled into my driveway, I gave him one of the Mandela newspapers along with his tip.

He smiled wide and thanked me.

“He is the father of Africa,” he said.

Stephanie Allmon is the Star -Telegram’s assistant managing editor/features and editorial director of Indulge. 817-390-7852. Twitter: @stephallmon

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