Nelson Mandela

South Africans celebrate Mandela's life and worry they'll forget his legacy

Countrymen unite in mourning 'Madiba' but some worry it was only he who kept nation together

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 3:49am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 4:05am

South Africans united in mourning for Nelson Mandela, but while some celebrated his remarkable life with dance and song, others fretted that the anti-apartheid hero's death would make the nation vulnerable once again to racial and social tensions.

Despite reassurances from public figures that Mandela's passing, while sorrowful, would not halt South Africa's advance away from its bitter apartheid past, some still expressed unease about the absence of a man famed as a peacemaker.

"It's not going to be good, hey! I think it's going to become a more racist country. People will turn on each other and chase foreigners away," said Sharon Qubeka, 28, a secretary from Tembisa township, as she headed to work in Johannesburg.

"Mandela was the only one who kept things together," she said.

We are in trouble now, Africa. No one will fit Mandela's shoes

Flags flew at half mast as South Africa entered a period of mourning leading up to a planned state funeral for its first black president next week.

Trade was halted for five minutes on the Johannesburg stock exchange, Africa's largest bourse, out of respect.

But the mood was not all sombre. Hundreds filled the streets around Mandela's home in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, many singing songs of tribute and dancing.

The crowd included toddlers carrying flowers, domestic workers still in uniform and businessmen in suits.

Many attended church services, including another veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu.

The loss was also keenly felt across the African continent. "We are in trouble now, Africa. No one will fit Mandela's shoes," said Kenyan teacher Catherine Ochieng, 32.

For South Africa, the death of its most beloved leader comes at a time when the nation, which basked in global goodwill after apartheid ended, has been experiencing labour unrest, growing protests against poor services, poverty, crime and unemployment and corruption scandals tainting President Jacob Zuma's rule.

"I feel like I lost my father, someone who would look out for me," said Joseph Nkosi, 36, a security guard from Alexandra township in Johannesburg.

Referring to Mandela by his clan name, he added: "Now without Madiba I feel like I don't have a chance. The rich will get richer and simply forget about us. The poor don't matter to them. Look at our politicians, they are nothing like Madiba."

The crowd around Mandela's home preferred to celebrate his achievement in bringing South Africans together.

For 16-year-old Michael Lowry, who has no memory of the apartheid system that ended in 1994, Mandela's legacy means he can have non-white friends. He attended two schools where Mandela's grandchildren were also students.

"I hear stories that my parents tell me and I'm just shocked that such a country could exist. I couldn't imagine just going to school with just white friends," Lowry said.

Shortly after the news of Mandela's death, Tutu tried to ease fears that the absence of the man who steered South Africa to democracy might revive some of the ghosts of apartheid.

"To suggest that South Africa might go up in flames - as some have predicted - is to discredit South Africans and Madiba's legacy," Tutu said.

"The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day and the next ... It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on," Tutu said.

Mark Rosenberg, senior Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group, said that while Mandela's death might even give the ANC a sympathy-driven boost for elections due next year, it would hurt the party in the long term.

He saw Mandela's absence "sapping the party's historical legitimacy and encouraging rejection by voters who believe the ANC has failed to deliver on its economic promises and become mired in corruption".

In Soweto, the bedrock of black resistance against apartheid rule, a small crowd of admirers braved an unseasonal chilly summer morning to lay flowers outside Mandela's former residence, which is now a museum and a popular attraction for tourists.

At times the mourners spontaneously burst into song, cheering and dancing as music blared from a nearby car stereo in a celebration of the revered statesman's life.

"A life well lived," said 38-year-old doctor Mahlodi Tau, remembering her hero.

"He has finished the race and he fought a good fight," she said, still dressed in her running slacks, quoting the apostle Paul from the Bible.

Mandela lived in the Soweto house with then-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela before he went underground in the early 1960s. On his release after 27 years in prison he briefly returned there.

Many Soweto mourners said they had dreaded the inevitable, though the ailing statesman's poor health in recent years had prepared many for his approaching death.

"Over 95 years, it's not child's play. We dreaded this day when the gentle giant was going to die," said Sifisi Mnisi, who scribbled messages on his car honouring the "father of the nation".

"My Black President", "You fought against black and white domination, dankie (thank you) son" were some of the tributes he wrote in black and red markers.

Mandela's wrinkled face beamed out from South African newspaper front pages.

Afrikaans-language Die Burger simply said " Hy is weg" - "He is gone", the Sowetan "Goodbye Tata" or "Goodbye Grandad," and The Star "The World Weeps".

Most newspapers published their headlines in black, as a sign of mourning.

Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse