Sunday, December 08, 2013

South Africa Begins Farwell to Nelson Mandela

South Africa Begins Farewell to Nelson Mandela

President Zuma Designates Day of Prayer and Reflection

Dec. 8, 2013 8:02 a.m. ET
Associated Press

QUNU, South Africa—The country Sunday began to bid a collective goodbye to its first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked a logistical scramble to mark his passing in places that ranged from a massive soccer stadium to a rural town with no airport.

President Jacob Zuma had designated a day of prayer and reflection on the life of Mr. Mandela. The 95-year-old statesman, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home, was seen as the great hope for a racially divided country. On Sunday, South African officials fanned out to different churches, in what amounted to a fresh campaign to use Mr. Mandela's spirit to bring people together.

A new e-book chronicles the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, from prisoner to president of a democratic South Africa, and finally to revered elder statesman.

"We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for," President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using the clan name of Mr. Mandela. "He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation."

Meanwhile, in a Methodist church overlooking Nelson Mandela's rural home of Qunu, community members also gathered to say goodbye Sunday in song and prayer.

"We are here to give Madiba a peaceful journey," said churchgoer Sabelo Ngqeleni. "We will always remember his spirit."

The 50-year-old said it was because of Mr. Mandela's urging for all South Africans to go to school that he left a job as a gold miner to get a better education. He now works for the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs.

The prayers marked the beginning of a weeklong mourning in memory of Mr. Mandela, who came to power in 1994 after 27 years in prison.

The first memorial will be Tuesday at a Johannesburg soccer stadium that seats 90,000 people. The government expects attendance from a number of foreign leaders, many of whom will also be invited to attend Mr. Mandela's burial Sunday in his home village of Qunu, in South Africa's rural Eastern Cape province.

Mr. Mandela will be buried in a stone plot surrounded by aloe plants overlooking the salmon pink home he built after his release from prison.

In between Tuesday's memorial and Sunday's burial in Qunu, people will be invited to view Mr. Mandela's body lying in the capital Pretoria. For three days, his remains will be transported from a military hospital to a complex there called the Union Buildings. The government is hoping South Africans will line the route to pay their respects.

Others outside South Africa have also begun to memorialize a liberation hero who became a global symbol of equal rights for oppressed people. The South African government said that Kashmir, the contested territory between sandwiched between India and Pakistan, declared five days mourning; Iran named a street after Mr. Mandela, it said.

For many in his hometown, the memories of Mr. Mandela were much more personal.

In his memoirs, Mr. Mandela says some of his fondest memories were of the time he spent playing in streams and stick fighting in Qunu. Today, the stream has dried up and the village struggles with high unemployment but Mr. Mandela is still seen as the man who brought freedom.

Outside Mr. Mandela's house, a group of young men sat staring across the road. One said "it's too early to talk."

Other residents recall times Mr. Mandela would walk through Qunu, stopping to speak to people.

In 1995, not long after Mr. Mandela was elected president, Benjamin Xala says he was home at Christmas when he saw Mr. Mandela strolling past his house.

"I had no words so he said, 'Aren't you going to come greet me?'," Mr. Xala said, standing in his yard with a view of Mr. Mandela's house. "We took pictures and the whole family met him."

The village chief of Qunu, Nokwanele Balizulu, said once she couldn't pay her child's school fees and Mr. Mandela helped.

With the passing of Mr. Mandela some in the village are concerned they lost a benefactor. In recent years, Mr. Mandela's ruling African National Congress has confronted so-called service delivery protests in predominantly black townships and villages among those fed-up with power outages, poor roads and a dearth of decent housing.

"I'm worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us," says 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu. "I don't think the government will do like Tata Madiba," she said, using affectionate terms for the deceased leader.

Residents of Qunu are now preparing themselves for the influx of visitors. The lone two-lane highway leading into the town is under construction. Hotels in the closest city with lodging and an airport, Mthatha, have doubled prices this week. Residents in Qunu are also renting out their home for hundreds of dollars a night.

A two-mile stretch of road in front of Mr. Mandela's house has been closed, as police divert traffic. Four military trucks park in front of the house while event trucks come and go ahead of the Dec. 15 burial. Cranes on the land behind Mr. Mandela's Qunu home were busy erecting scaffolding for a tent.

The day before his burial Sunday, the government said the family will have a private gathering and hold a traditional Xhosa ceremony, in honor of Mr. Mandela's ethnic group. Mr. Mandela embraced his Xhosa heritage, but also showed deep loyalty for the ANC, the liberation party that brought together people of all ethnic groups.

"I asked him once what will happen when he goes," said Ms. Balizulu, the village chief of Qunu. "He said he will look for an ANC office in heaven."

—Patrick McGroarty and Peter Wonacott in Johannesburg contributed to this article.

Write to Devon Maylie at

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