PRETORIA – The death of Nelson Mandela on December 5th at the age of 95 and after prolonged bouts of illness hardly came as a surprise to most South Africans. It was a gentle touchdown to a hard reality that years earlier had vexed many: what will happen when Madiba goes? What will we do?
Had he died suddenly while still president, or in dubious circumstances when he was obviously in robust health, the fears that still raw social tensions would erupt violently would seem grounded.
But Madiba’s decline allowed for a sense of placid transition between him being here and no longer with us. Feelings of loss more readily mix with a sense of affirmation.
This is the mood at many of the township and village gatherings held over the last few days. Though the country faces massive challenges to end poverty, inequality and underdevelopment, it has come a long way on these counts, and Mandela is readily associated with the good that has happened.
This all contrasts with the wall-to-wall TV and radio tributes broadcast unrelentingly. They tend to offer a teary send-off for Mandela, steeped in muzak, the touchy-feely bromides of celebrities, and cursory historical accounts that gloss over Mandela’s radical career.
But on the street, outside the Mandela homes in Soweto and Johannesburg, people gathered to sing freedom songs, and to dance (you can’t do the one without the other). The same has been happening in other parts of the country, in townships and villages.
People packed the stadium in the far-flung Limpopo rural township of Malamulele in the north of the country on Sunday. The atmosphere was hardly sombre, and all the more poignant for its mix of mourning and celebration of a revolutionary life that helped win South Africa its freedom from apartheid.
It’s not all raucous celebration. Many areas are quiet as daily life goes on, though less frenetically than usual. People are taking things in their stride.
In the once staunchly white working-class suburb of Pretoria North, just outside South Africa’s administrative capital, the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church held services and to commemorate Mandela’s achievements. These began the day after the announcement of his death.
The Dutch Reformed Church was traditionally a bastion of apartheid values, renounced and denounced as the church reinvented itself. It was a reinvention made possible largely by Mandela’s resolute strategy of reconciliation prior to and in the wake of the first democratic elections in 1994.
Pretoria North is now a shadow of its miserable past. It’s a lower-middle and working class suburb where black and white people have socially integrated to a level that far exceeds wealthier areas.
There have been continuous services and vigils in other churches in the area and in the large nearby townships of Soshanguve, Winterfeldt and Mabopane. Most are charisma (holiness) churches, preaching born again Christianity, and here the up-tempo gospel songs and sermons have been celebrating Mandela.
In the next few days swarms of heads of state and other dignitaries will descend on South Africa to attend Mandela’s state funeral, and the period of national mourning will shift into another gear.
But recent days have shown South Africa coming to terms with the loss of Mandela on its own terms, and in ways showing that most people here see South Africa as a better place because of what Mandela did and stood for.
Had the country’s transformation failed – and the bourgeois commercial media in South Africa spend most of the time telling people that it has – it is hardly likely Mandela would be celebrated the way he is in poor or less well off areas here.
Perhaps this more than anything gives the lie to the musings of Slavoj Zizek that Mandela’s legacy was one of “bitter defeat”.
In fact a recent Gallup poll of South Africans showed that 91 percent felt that their families were better off than now than during apartheid.
Photo: Denis Farrell/AP