South Africans reflect on Mandela′s funeral | Africa | DW | 15.12.2013
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South Africans reflect on Mandela's funeral

Nelson Mandela has been buried in his home village of Qunu as millions of South Africans watched the official ceremony on TV and at public viewing sites. Qunu residents were unhappy at not being officially involved.

The television has been on since 6 a.m. in Sam Hlatshwayo's small house in the Soweto suburb of Johannesburg. "Since Nelson Mandela died, we only switch the TV off when we go to bed," the 63 year-old told DW - "We don't want to miss anything." As he spoke, the screen showed the coffin of Nelson Mandela being transported on a gun carriage to Qunu, the late president's home village and burial site.

The state funeral marked the climax of an unprecedented period of mourning since South Africa's first black president died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. Almost a hundred heads of state and government attended the official memorial ceremony in Johannesburg, and tens of thousands of South Africans bid farewell in Pretoria where Mandela's body lay in state.

Sam Hlatshwayo and his wife Rhoda have lived for almost 30 years in the small white house that the apartheid regime in Soweto allocated to them. "It was a gift to us, the people they saw as devils," Sam said, grinning. They experienced first hand the dictatorship and oppression against which Nelson Mandela fought his whole life.

Sam and Rhoda Hlatshwayo in front of their TV

Sam and Rhoda Hlatshwayo were among the millions who watched the funeral on TV

"Today we are doing fine, thanks to Nelson Mandela," Sam said. As a black taxi driver, he was prevented from carrying white passengers or entering white residential areas until the end of apartheid. He had to obtain written permission to visit relatives at the other end of town.

Once he lent his taxi to a white man. "Shortly afterwards he drove back - and there were four policemen sitting in the taxi. One of them said to me: 'Do that one more time and both of you will land in jail,'" Sam recalled.

In the meantime, Mandela's coffin has arrived to the ceremonial tent in Qunu. A choir sings. The camera zooms in on family members. Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, fights tears. Grandson Mandla bows his head. Ex-wife Winnie's eyes are hidden behind a large pair of sunglasses.

Funeral or political event?

"I'm most sorry for Mandela's family. I knew that Nelson Mandela would die one day and I was prepared," Rhoda says. She interrupts her work in the kitchen and comes to sit on the small sofa in front of the TV. She sits erect, her hands folded in her lap. Her father was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and for a while belonged to the leading circle in Johannesburg.

Like the memorial ceremony several days earlier (10.12.2013), the funeral is also to some extent a political party event. In Qunu, ANC National Chairperson Baleka Mbete welcomes those present. ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa follows. The leadership role taken by the party in organizing the tributes and commemorations has not gone without criticism. An article in the weekly newspaper "Mail & Guardian" accused the ANC of using Mandela's death to boost its campaigning - elections are due in 2014.

Candles under a portrait of Nelson Mandela

The burial of Nelson Mandela marked the climax of an unprecedented series of memorial events

Rhoda's 43-year-old son Siyabonga, sitting on the couch opposite, finds nothing wrong with this. "Nelson Mandela said himself that the first thing he would do in heaven would be to look for a local ANC group," he said. "They're the ruling party, so of course they should play an important role at the funeral."

The TV shows a huge picture of a laughing Mandela in the ceremonial tent. Ninety-five candles are burning, one for each of his years on earth. A children's choir sings for the late president. Mandela was known for his love of children.

But back in Soweto, Siyabonga's thoughts are still on politics. During the public memorial ceremony in Johannesburg, President Zuma was booed by some of the spectators. Siyabonga says this shows "that we have become a democratic country."

Watching with the crowd

In Qunu, Ahmed Kathrada - a close friend and companion in arms of Mandela - can now be seen. His voice breaks several times during his moving speech. "Today, mingled with our grief is the enormous pride that one of our own has during his lifetime, and now in death, united the people of South Africa and the entire world on a scale never before experienced in history," he said.

For Sam Hlatshwayo, the funeral is also late reminder of the fact that the apartheid era is over. "I never thought there would be such a large funeral in South Africa - and certainly not for a black man,” he said.

Opening of the Nelson Mandela Center for Memory in Johannesburg

The official opening of the Nelson Mandela Center for Memory in Johannesburg drew large crowds

A stone's throw from Sam's house is the Regina Mundi church. This is a historic site, the place where the 1976 Soweto uprising took place. Black pupils demonstrated against the planned introduction of the hated white language Afrikaans in schools.

On June 19, 1976 police opened fire on the protesting pupils. Many fled into the church, but even there police continued shooting. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with investigating crimes committed under apartheid, was based here from 1995 to 1988.

At the park in front of the church, a screen has been erected for people to watch live coverage of the funeral. There's a children's playground close by, and a man selling grilled sausages. Lizza Smakhzubele has come with her friend Lerato to watch the funeral. They're wearing white t-shirts imprinted with Mandela's face.

"I'm really a child of the 'born-free generation' with little direct experience of the apartheid era," Lizza says. But to watch the funeral at home was out of the question for the 26-year-old. "I want to be part of the crowd, together with others celebrating the life of a legend," she tells DW.

Criticism in Qunu

In Qunu, it's the turn for the guests of honor to speak. Malawi President Joyce Banda is one of them, as is Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn. But the residents of Qunu are angry that the official guest list contained the names of some 5,000 VIPs and family members, but did not include the people of Qunu - a source of great frustration to many.

President Zuma waves to the crowd at the memorial ceremony

President Jacob Zuma has been accused of using Mandela's death as an opportunity to boost support for the ANC

The funeral has now been underway for three hours. Two-and-a-half were planned. President Zuma steps up to the podium. He plays his favorite role, that of Mandela's political heir.

"It is the end of 95 glorious years, of a freedom fighter, a dedicated and humble servant of the people of South Africa. A fountain of wisdom, a pillar of strength, and a beacon of hope for all those fighting for a just and equitable world order," Zuma said.

'Not the South Africa that Mandela wanted'

Sam Hlatshwayo listens to the president's words in his front room. He is still a loyal ANC supporter, although the government has pushed a draconian media law through parliament, and President Zuma is suspected of using taxpayers' money to build an annex to his house.

TV coverage of the funeral ends after four hours. The burial then takes place as a private ceremony out of public eye, per the Mandela family's wishes.

Sam Hlatshwayo takes the opportunity to go outside and smoke a cigarette. "South Africa is not the country that Mandela wanted," he says. "There are still too many people who have to live in huts."

He recalls the financial aid the government introduced at the end of apartheid. "When someone has 100 Rand (about 7 euros, or $9.60) and can buy some corn, then that is at least a beginning."

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