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South Africa united in mourning as Mandela’s long walk ends

In a collective outpouring of emotion not seen since Nelson Mandela ushered in an era of democracy in 1994, South Africans began a period of mourning that will last for many days to come. Richard Ferraris reports
South African children celebrate Nelson Mandela's life in the street outside his old house in Soweto, Johannesburg, on Friday. Ben Curtis / AP Photo
South African children celebrate Nelson Mandela's life in the street outside his old house in Soweto, Johannesburg, on Friday. Ben Curtis / AP Photo

When he was 75, Nelson Mandela said he dare not pause to rest in his “long walk for freedom”, for with that freedom came responsibilities to South Africans and millions of people around the world. “My long walk has not ended,” he said.

Late on Thursday, in his home in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, Mandela’s long walk ended, and on Friday South Africans grieved the loss of the man that the president Jacob Zuma called the nation’s father and its greatest son.

In a collective outpouring of emotion not seen since Mandela ushered in an era of democracy in 1994, South Africans began a period of mourning that will last for many days to come.

Under dark Johannesburg skies, they gathered outside Mandela’s former Vilakazi Street home and his residence in Houghton where many danced and sang to celebrate the remarkable life of their “tata”, or father. Others lit candles, laid wreaths of flowers and prayed.

Mr Zuma on Friday announced an open-air memorial will be held on Tuesday and a state funeral on December 15 to pay tribute to a man whose tireless fight for freedom and equality helped force an end to white minority rule.

Mandela, who died aged 95 after months of fighting a recurring lung infection, a consequence of the 27 years he spent in apartheid jails, will also lie in state from December 11 to 13.

The former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, said Mandela’s message of unity and reconciliation would ensure stability in the country.

“To suggest that South Africa might go up in flames — as some have predicted — is to discredit South Africans and Madiba’s legacy,” he said.

South Africa’s Islamic Al Jama-Ah political party said on Friday that Mandela’s death would be marked by silent prayer.

“The greatest gift one can give to a human being is freedom and that is what Mandela did for all South Africans,” party leader Ganief Hendricks said.

A Muslim anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, who was jailed with Mandela by the apartheid regime, praised Mandela for his contribution to the country.

“Farewell my elder brother, my mentor, my leader. With all the energy and determination at our command, we pledge to join the people of South Africa and the world to perpetuate the ideals and values for which you have devoted your life,” he wrote in South Africa’s The Daily Maverick.

Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, some of his three children, 17 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren were at his side during his final days in his Johannesburg home, where he was receiving care.

Mrs Machel was his third wife, the first two marriages unravelling under the immense political pressures he faced. Mandela married Evelyn Mase in 1944 but admitted in his autobiography that she had issued an ultimatum. “I had to choose between her and the ANC,” he wrote.

In 1956 Mandela was arrested for opposing the apartheid government and tried for treason in the infamous Treason trial. Two years later he married Winnie Madikizela, to whom he was married during his 27 years in jail. Although Mandela was found not guilty in that trial in 1961, he was sentenced to life in jail in 1964 for inciting workers and leaving South Africa without permission.

Their marriage ended in 1996, six years after he was freed, and in 1998 — on his 80th birthday — Mandela married Mrs Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique who was 27 years his junior.

“I’m in love with a remarkable lady. I don’t regret the reverses and setbacks because late in my life I am blooming like a flower, because of the love and support she has given me,” Mandela said in his authorised biography.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC), to which Mandela devoted most of his life, acknowledged Mandela’s selfless efforts to overthrow the tyranny of white-minority rule.

“Our nation has lost a colossus, an epitome of humility, equality, justice, peace and the hope of millions; here and abroad,” the ANC said.

The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition party to the ANC, also paid tribute to the father of a free South Africa.

“Today the rainbow nation lost its father,” it said. “Today, we are a nation united in grief.”

It was a day long expected and feared by South Africans of all races. They had over the past year closely monitored their ailing former president’s health.

Known affectionately by his clan name of Madiba and as tata, he had been admitted to hospital with lung complications several times since December last year and South Africans braced themselves for the worst on Wednesday when his daughter Makaziwe Mandela said he was on his deathbed.

Mandela’s condition deteriorated earlier this year and on June 8, just days before the 37th anniversary of the Soweto uprising that had revitalised the struggle against apartheid, he was again admitted to hospital.

Dozens of peaceful protesters were killed in Soweto on June 16, 1976, which changed the shape of resistance to apartheid. By then South Africa’s apartheid regime had successfully undermined the ANC by jailing Mandela along with dozens of his colleagues.

Residents of Soweto rushed to Mandela’s old house on the outskirts of Johannesburg to celebrate the revered statesman’s life.

“Wherever he is, I can assure you he is listening and is smiling,” said Kabelo Noe, 39, who joined about 200 people dancing in front of the residence, now a museum and a popular tourist attraction.

Although Mandela and the ANC leadership had been isolated in prison by 1976, the uprising thrust the anti-apartheid movement back into the spotlight. By the 1980s, Mandela had entered secret talks with the apartheid regime, which together with unrest on the streets, a faltering apartheid economy and mounting international pressure eventually created the conditions for a negotiated settlement, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk.

“Although we were political opponents, and although our relationship was often stormy, we were always able to come together at critical moments to resolve the many crises that arose during the negotiation process,” Mr de Klerk said.

It was Madiba who led the ANC to South Africa’s first free elections in 1994 and he was swept into power with 63 per cent of the vote.

Fears of a race-based war were defused by Mandela’s moral gravitas both before the poll and during his term as president. His efforts towards non-racialism made him a hero across the race divide and his message of peace, tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation won him adoration the world over.

Mandela served just one term as South Africa’s president, leaving office in 1999, a fact often bemoaned by many South Africans. But on a continent where leaders often spend indefinite terms in office, Mandela was adamant that he step aside — to set an example both to South Africa and the continent.

Richard Ferraris is assistant foreign editor


With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Updated: December 6, 2013 04:00 AM