World grieves loss of Mandela

New York TimesDecember 6, 2013 

— The mood was more festive than funereal. Outside Nelson Mandela’s former home in Soweto on Friday, crowds sang, chanted and danced. People carried posters emblazoned with his famous quotations. Children ran through the streets, holding up pictures of the former president’s face torn from the morning’s newspapers.

“We love you, Papa Mandela,” they cried.

Eunice Ngakane, 40, from North West province, said she and her friends were going to spend the whole night on Vilakazi Street, remembering the national hero who had died the night before. Then they would “freshen up” in the morning and come right back again.

“When Africa cries, Africa sings,” said Japie Molatedi, 55, who described himself as a “typical Sowetan.”

Samantha Nkabinde, 28, a financial analyst in Johannesburg, said it was only fitting for the mourning to take place in such a public fashion. “He never sat behind closed doors or walls,” she said. “He went out among the people, touched so many people.”

The crowd sang, “Mandela, you’re my president.”

In the government’s first announcement of a schedule for ceremonies that are likely to draw vast numbers of world dignitaries and less exalted mourners, President Jacob Zuma said Friday that the former president’s body would lie in state from Dec. 11 to 13 after a memorial at a huge World Cup soccer stadium in Soweto on Dec. 10. He will be buried in his childhood village, Qunu, in the Eastern Cape region, on Dec. 15 after a state funeral, Zuma said.

The White House said in a statement that President Barack Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, would visit South Africa next week “to participate in memorial events.” The wording left unclear whether the state funeral was included.

The state funeral will fall on the eve of Dec. 16, one of the most important public holidays in the South African political calendar, with heavy historical resonance for blacks and whites. Officially known since 1994 as the Day of Reconciliation, it also marks the founding in 1961 of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, guerrilla army that opposed white rule, and a much earlier victory by Afrikaner forces over a Zulu army in 1838 known as the Battle of Blood River.

‘A giant among men’

At a service in Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a towering figure in the struggle against apartheid that defined much of Mandela’s life, expressed the hopes and fears of many of his compatriots when he told congregants at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral early Friday: “Let us give him the gift of a South Africa united, one.”

As flags flew at half-staff across South Africa, a sense of loss, blended with memories of inspiration, spread from Obama in Washington to members of the British royal family and on to those who saw Mandela as an exemplar of a broader struggle.

“A giant among men has passed away,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India said. “This is as much India’s loss as South Africa’s.”

As public figures competed for superlatives to describe Mandela, Prime Minister David Cameron declared in London: “A great light has gone out in the world.” Pope Francis praised “the steadfast commitment shown by Nelson Mandela in promoting the human dignity of all the nation’s citizens and in forging a new South Africa.” President Vladimir Putin of Russia said Mandela was “committed to the end of his days to the ideals of humanism and justice.”

Speaking in Cape Town after his service in the cathedral, Tutu asked rhetorically whether Mandela was “the exception to prove the rule.”

“I say no, emphatically,” he said, adding that Mandela “embodied our hopes and dreams, symbolized our enormous potential.”

Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said that South Africans owed their sense of belonging to a single family to Mandela. “That is his legacy,” she said. “It is why there is an unparalleled outpouring of national grief at his passing.”

Tributes crossed lines

The tone of the tributes reflected seemingly universal sentiments crossing racial, national, religious and political lines. In the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike rushed to embrace his legacy. In China, the government hailed him as a liberator from imperialism, even as dissidents embraced him as a symbol of resistance against repression.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad, accused by the political opposition of heinous crimes in a nearly 3-year-old civil war, said Mandela was “an inspiration in the values of love and human brotherhood.”

In South Africa, people of all races gathered at Mandela’s home, laying wreaths, singing freedom songs, whispering prayers and performing the shuffling toyi-toyi dance in his honor. People came together in a way that seems increasingly rare in a nation confronting the everyday worries of a struggling economy, incessant allegations of government corruption and a sinking sense that a nation born two decades ago into such promise is slipping into despair.

“It is one of those days when everyone is united again,” said Reginald Hoskins, who brought his two young children to Mandela’s house Friday morning. “That is what Nelson Mandela stood for, and we need to honor that in our lives every day.”

For those who knew him best, the knowledge that he has gone slowly seeped in.

“I never thought, knowing him for close to 40 years, that I would ever speak of him in the past tense,” said Tokyo Sexwale, a senior member of the African National Congress who served prison time on Robben Island alongside Mandela. “The passing of an icon like Nelson Mandela signifies the end of an era.”

‘Forgiveness on a grand scale’

Musicians, clerics and sports figures joined the rush to offer accolades after Mandela’s death was announced late Thursday, with a leading South African cricketer, A.B. de Villiers, echoing Tutu’s hope for a future free of renewed racial and social division.

“Let us now, more than ever, stick together as a nation,” de Villiers said. “We owe him that much.”

Mandela was closely linked with sports, both as a boxer in his youth and, after becoming South Africa’s first black president, as a supporter of the national Springbok rugby team – once a symbol of white exclusivism – which triumphed in the 1995 World Cup.

But his broader legacy, for some sports figures, related to his quest for reconciliation and freedom.

“He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale,” Muhammad Ali said in a statement. “His was a spirit born free, destined to soar above the rainbows. Today his spirit is soaring through the heavens. He is now forever free.”

Usain Bolt, the Jamaican Olympic sprinter, called Mandela “one of the greatest human beings ever.”

Tributes from the Mideast

In the Middle East, Israeli and Palestinian leaders offered tributes to a man who had been a staunch supporter of and role model for the Palestine Liberation Organization but who had also recognized what he called “the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism.”

Mandela and his African National Congress resented the close military and intelligence ties that Israel maintained over decades with South Africa’s apartheid leadership, and one of his first acts as a free man was to visit Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

On Friday, Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader imprisoned since 2002, declared in a statement: “From within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” according to a translation released by the PLO.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called Mandela “a paragon of our time” and a “moral leader of the first order,” while President Shimon Peres said his “legacy will remain etched on the pages of history and in the hearts of all those people whose lives he touched.”

About 40 African leaders and senior officials were gathering in Paris to attend a summit meeting with President François Hollande when Mandela died. Overshadowed by the news from Johannesburg, the gathering opened Friday with a minute’s silence for Mandela.

A special flower

When Cliff Rosen, an urban farmer in Johannesburg, awoke Friday to the news that Mandela had died, he went out to the sunflowers growing in his garden and cut down the tallest one.

“A special flower for a special man,” said Rosen, 40, as he wired the towering, 6-foot stalk to the fence surrounding the spontaneous memorial that has sprung up just outside the home where Mandela died.

“I chose this flower because he towered over us all,” Rosen said. “Today it feels like the world got a little bit smaller.”

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