Last Thursday around 11:30 p.m., my boyfriend and I were in the middle of a movie when a text from a friend in Nigeria read that Nelson Mandela had just passed away. Within seconds the news dominated our social media feeds as South African President Jacob Zuma made the official announcement on SABC TV (South African Broadcasting Corporation). I can’t say that Mandela’s passing was much of a surprise, we’ve heard about his deteriorating health for the past five years, most recently in June when international media set up camp in front of a Pretoria hospital for weeks after he was admitted for a lung infection. However regardless of its inevitability, the news did not hurt any less. To hear the words spoken, witness the headlines dominating the front page of every paper and watch countless pre-produced television segments and documentaries on Madiba’s life forced us to face the sad reality that South Africa and the world just lost one of its most prominent and respected leaders.
As I am sure his loss is being felt all over the world, no where could it be stronger than here in South Africa. In the days that followed Thursday’s announcement, the country has experienced both a grieving and celebration of a life that has guided it though its darkest moments, serving as a symbol of hope and inspiration. Back-to-back traffic lined the streets of Mandela’s home in the Houghton suburb of Johannesburg where crowds paid their respects with an outpour of letters, flowers, and candlelight vigils. People danced, sang and even had a chance to buy t-shirts, banners and hats commemorating this moment. I admit, I was a bit shocked at the sight of vendors selling items on the street, but hey, where there’s a business opportunity, why not seize it?
Vilakazi Street in Soweto was no different. While this street is normally a tourist attraction (both Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived there), the news of Madiba’s passing brought news trucks from everywhere, from the Associated Press and NBC News to Brazil’s TV Globo and Geneva’s Eurovision, along with constant displays of respect from local groups ranging from the ANC Youth League to the party’s main rival the Economic Freedom Fighters. Tourists lined the block for entry into Mandela’s one-time home, now a museum, while residents took to the street to sing songs of commemoration and loss.
Even the rain couldn’t stop people from making their way to FNB stadium for yesterday’s memorial service, which was open to the public on a first-come-first serve basis. People began arriving as early as 7 a.m. for the program which did not start until roughly noon. So for hours, people endured the weather to take part in this piece of history, which attracted world leaders like U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Raoul Castro. Watching the arrivals of heads of state from almost every major nation was like watching the Oscars red carpet on steroids. It then dawned on me that Mandela was perhaps the only public figure on earth who could have garnered such universal respect and admiration.
Next year, South Africa will embark on its next presidential election where Jacob Zuma will once again represent the ANC. No question that he is no Nelson Mandela—not even close. Now that my new home has lost its most prominent global leader, who will carry his torch? It’s certainly not Zuma, whose years in office have been full of corruption, followed by a memorial speech that was read word-for-word from a sheet of paper with little enthusiasm, emotion or conviction.
After almost three months in Johannesburg, the past few days have reminded me of the strength and resilience of so many South Africans who continue to live in the wake of their past, striving to create a new definition of what it means to be South African. It is this energy that inspires me and makes this place like no other. I’m optimistic and excited to be a part of a country that can find inspiration in Mandela’s vision to create and nurture a new and more dynamic South Africa.
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