Face To Face With The Body Of Nelson Mandela

So the long journey is nearly over. The body of Nelson Mandela will be buried at last today, in the village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, the place he always thought of as home. Security will be tight and the location is remote. For most South Africans, the last chance to say a personal goodbye was in Pretoria, where his body lay in state for three days. To see it was both a privilege and a shock. One young black man who was overcome by tears rubbed his face with his cloth cap as he walked away, and used the Xhosa word for father when he said to himself: “That was not Tata.”

The face under the glass coffin cover had the waxy skin of a corpse, of course. Puffier than expected, it did not look serene or at peace, as people often do after death when they have been prepared for viewing.

If anything, Mandela looked troubled. After seeing so many images of his smiling, youthful face on T-shirts, caps and flags over the past few days, the reality brought a surge of emotion, a twist in the gut.

It was all too much for an elderly white lady, who had to be comforted by a policewoman as she cried: “What’s going to become of us now that he’s gone?”

To answer that question, and to understand what the death of this man means to South Africans and to people in the wider world, it is best to consider him in three ways.

Firstly, Mandela the man, mourned and celebrated by those who were close to him, his friends and family.

Secondly, Mandela the national hero, mourned and celebrated by those who are so grateful for the change he brought about in South Africa, but often fearful of what may come next.

Thirdly, Mandela the global icon, mourned and celebrated by those who know him from the television, the movies, the books, T-shirts and the words of wisdom that are increasingly treated like scripture.

Nelson Mandela the man was 95 years old when his body finally gave up on the evening of Thursday December 8 at his home in Houghton, a suburb of Johannesburg. The life-support had been removed and he was breathing on his own as the end approached.

Around his bedside were his second and third wives, Winnie and Graça, his grandson and tribal heir Mandla, and his eldest daughter Makaziwe, known as Maki, who said there was time enough to say goodbye: “What I call his ‘transition’ was very beautiful.”

His two youngest daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, were in London at the royal premiere of the film of his life, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, but left the cinema after being told the news. In Houghton, the military arrived at midnight with a coffin and the family stood to see it go, singing as he left.

On Monday night, a small group of his closest allies gathered at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, a few blocks from his home. Among them was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the other boy from the same street in Soweto to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Remembering the days when they risked their lives to fight apartheid, he urged his old friends to consider again the miracle wrought in their lifetimes.

“It is unbelievable,” he said. “Don’t you believe that God actually loves us South Africans? Everyone was saying that we would have gone up in flames [without Mandela]. He was like a magician with a magic wand, turning us into those glorious multiracial rainbow people. We are not there yet … but yay!”

He did a little jig that brought a smile to George Bizos, Mandela’s lawyer for half a century. He probably saved his client’s life at the Rivonia trial in 1964, by persuading Mandela to amend the declaration that he would willingly die for a free South Africa. Adding three words – “if needs be” – gave the judge the freedom to issue a sentence of life in prison, rather than death.

Despite his intimacy with Mandela, Mr Bizos found himself facing two of the daughters in court earlier this year, as they tried to remove him from the boards of family trusts.

The Mandela family went to war with itself while the man himself was on life support. Winnie and Maki jostled to be seen as the voice of the Mandelas, while Mandla, the grandson, tried to force the rest of the family to bury his grandfather in his own village, to his own potential gain.

But all that was put away when the end actually came. Mandla took up his duties as tribal heir, remaining with the body throughout the period of mourning, all the way to Qunu. And the family managed to present a united front at the huge memorial event held at the FNB Stadium in Soweto on Tuesday, sitting together in a covered enclosure near the stage.

Graça Machel had not been seen in public since her husband’s death, and it was evident why. Her face was fixed in an expression of deep sorrow. She sat close to Winnie, both women dressed entirely in black.

There has been a chill between them in the past, but they shared a hug and members of the family called them both “our mothers”. (The forgotten woman in all of this was the late Evelyn Mase, Mandela’s first wife and mother to four of his six children.)

The grief of the Mandelas was in striking contrast to the intended mood of the memorial, which was held at the site of his last public appearance, made at the end the vibrant World Cup of 2010.

This was meant to be a bright, happy celebration of a long and great life, and those who slept out overnight to be sure of seats in the stadium did their best to make it so. But they had to battle against terrible, unseasonal weather.

Heavy rain was blamed for the many empty seats in uncovered areas of the stadium, although President Jacob Zuma was also attacked for failing to declare a national holiday.

This was Zuma’s chance to present himself as the leader of a happy, harmonious people, but he blew it. Instead the event was a painful reminder of what had been lost: Mandela the national hero, the man who held South Africa together for so long, sometimes by sheer force of personality.

Speech after speech was drowned out by rival political factions high in the covered stands that taunted and jeered at each other but reserved their loudest, angriest boos and cries for when Zuma’s face appeared on the giant screens. The Mandela grandchildren found it hard to get through what they had to say, and even Barack Obama was unsettled by the noise.

The troubles that beset the ruling African National Congress were forcing their way to the world’s attention. The ANC swept to power with Mandela in 1994 and has ruled ever since, but the party is now exhausted and bitterly divided. Having been so delighted to get the vote, many people are now frustrated at how little it has achieved in recent times.

Millions are still in poverty, the Aids crisis continues, the rich are getting richer – and they include President Zuma, who faces accusations of corruption, both personally and in his party.

He could be ousted by a coup within the party, but it will still almost certainly win the general election next year. There are fears, however, that South Africa may erupt into violence once the mourning for Mandela is over.

Many of those jeering loudest at the memorial were followers of Julius Malema, self-appointed commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters and a big fan of Robert Mugabe. Lately he has praised Mandela for his time as the leader of an armed struggle.

Malema was expelled from the ANC last year and has the potential to spark racial conflict, particularly after being convicted of hate speech for singing a song with the words “shoot the Boer”.

A rowdy crowd in a half-empty stadium was embarrassing to Zuma. So was the revelation that the sign-language interpreter standing a few feet away from some of the most powerful men and women in the world was an apparent fake, who did nothing more than make a few unintelligible hand gestures.

Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, later claimed he was legitimate but had experienced a schizophrenic episode while on stage that caused him to see angels and left him unable to sign properly.

Such humiliation was not what Zuma wanted in front of his friends in Brics, the influential group of newly developed nations that also includes Brazil and India. A vice-president of China, Li Yuanchao, made a speech promising greater investment in South Africa but appeared baffled by such open dissent, as well he might.

The 90 world leaders at the stadium had come to honour Mandela the global icon. This was an image of himself that he worked hard to create in the years after the presidency, when he was seemingly willing to meet any international celebrity who came by, from the Spice Girls to Charlie Dimmock.

But the real Mandelamania – the insistence on seeing him as a great prophet of peace and reconciliation – is not a product of South Africa. The legend is being driven by people outside the country, mostly Americans and Europeans who want to see him in an uncomplicated way, as a light to humanity.

Barack Obama, in particular, seized the chance to position himself as Mandela’s heir. The crowd at the stadium encouraged him, inspiring the best speech of the day by far.

Then, when Obama was finished, people began to drift away. It was cold and wet. Getting home would be tricky. Having lived through so much difficulty, South Africans can be pragmatic.

“Madiba is dead. We are grateful for having had him among us, now we must live,” said a man selling T-shirts and caps bearing the former president’s tribal name, Madiba. Another said he had run down to a store to buy as many bin bags as he could, to sell them outside the stadium at R5 (30p) a piece. Masoka Satikge said: “When I saw the rain I said, ‘At least now I will have some cash flow’.”

There has been talk of people worshipping Mandela, but their love is more practical than that. The traders need to sell icons of his face in order to eat. The Mandela family will do all it can to capitalise on his name, including a reality show called Being Mandela. The politicians wrap themselves in his mantle as a useful disguise. South Africans who lived under his leadership remember his flaws. The emotional distance, the poor decisions as president, the dubious deals, the bad choice of successor, to name a few.

Still, almost everyone I spoke to felt a powerful gratitude towards him, for real, gritty reasons. He saved their country from war and changed their own individual lives profoundly.

“I had to come and sleep over so I can be closer. I want to say thank you,” said Mashuda Musekwa, 42, as she waited in the street to see her lost leader’s coffin come past. We were outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he would lie in state and she was carrying a yellow rose for him.

“The changes that he brought into my life are so many. It was not easy for us to develop ourselves academically, but through Madiba’s efforts we were able to do this,” she said. “I am a professional nurse because of Madiba. If it was not for him I would still be working as an assistant, with no prospects.”

When the black Mercedes came by, carrying the coffin wrapped in the national flag, she threw her rose.

Just across the street was Letitia Loots, 39, who had brought her three young children. “He changed everything,” she said, having grown up at the time of apartheid among Afrikaners who were ready to fight for what they had. “When they told us at school one day that the blacks would be allowed on the bus, we were very scared.”

She looked down at her 10-year-old son Marcel, who was holding a flag up with his friend Oratile, nine, who was black. “This would not have been possible if he didn’t make everyone aware that even if you are black or white you still have a heart, you can still have love for each other,” said Mrs Loots.

She had heard the talk of racial conflict, of black gangs coming for white farmers, of an imminent bloodbath, but Mrs Loots was trying to be hopeful: “If we live up to the ideals he set, it will carry on like this. It’s up to us to choose how we are going to live.”

The Loots family went off to stand in line for the chance to file past the glass-topped coffin, as tens of thousands were waiting to do. Pretoria chose to mark his death in a sombre, elegant way, almost as if to make up for the chaos of the day before.

Mandela was placed under a large rectangular arch like a stage set, outdoors in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings. Built as testament to the power of the Boers, the buildings were also where he was sworn in as the first black president of a democratic South Africa in 1994, a few steps from where he now lay.

The queues to see him were so long that some people would be turned away after waiting all day. The countless steps up to the Union Buildings made it seem like a pilgrimage in the fierce heat of noon.

The line shuffled forward, towards two marines in dazzling white uniforms, standing guard with their heads bowed. Then came the carved wooden coffin, half draped in white silk, with a glass top.

And suddenly there he was: Nelson Mandela, dressed in a dark shirt with swirls. It took a moment to see through the shadows on the glass to the face below, eyes closed, tilted slightly to one side.

He was not immediately recognisable. There was only a fleeting moment to take it all in, perhaps a second or two before being moved on by an usher, back out into the open and down the steps.

I had to sit down in the garden, where the air was heavy with the scent of flowers. I was trembling, unexpectedly ambushed by feeling. What was so overwhelming was the sense of absence.

Mandela kept the exact nature of his spiritual beliefs to himself in order to appeal to people of all faiths and none, but there is no doubt that the man raised as a Methodist believed in an afterlife.

And there was no doubt, looking at the body, that his life, his light, his energy were elsewhere. If the life was oceanic, then the body was a pebble washed up on the shore.

“Madiba is not here,” said the man with the cap, his face still wet with tears. Others coming down the hill spoke of how the truth was only just hitting them now.

Mandela the man has gone away. Mandela the national hero is desperately missed in a South Africa that seems at great risk of the kind of racial conflict he did so much to prevent. And Mandela the global icon? Well, that figure will grow now, without any more awkward reality to stop it, flourishing far away from where he lies.

But it will seem like a distant notion to those who put a father and a grandfather in the ground at last today, alongside the bodies of his children, in the place he called home.

The Telegraph 13 December 2013

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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