News / Africa

Reporter's Notebook: Mandela Legacy Becomes Personal

People are silhouetted against a late afternoon sun as they queue to see the remains of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, Dec. 11, 2013, where his body lies in state for three days.
People are silhouetted against a late afternoon sun as they queue to see the remains of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, Dec. 11, 2013, where his body lies in state for three days.
Anita Powell
I have never met Nelson Mandela. He retired from public life before I moved to South Africa in 2009.
But as I soon discovered, he is everywhere in this country. South Africans call him Tata, or father, as if he were a family member. People wear shirts emblazoned with his face and sing songs about his achievements. Countless South Africans who met him tell of the surprising intimacy he was able to forge with complete strangers.

He’s also been the most important story of my professional life here. Every little drop and dribble of news about him - and they have been mere drops and dribbles since he retired - has made headlines.

And so, when I was told on Wednesday that journalists, too, would have a chance to pass by his coffin and look at the great man for last [and for me, the first] time, I wavered.  

More than 90 world leaders gathered in Johannesburg on Tuesday for a memorial service honoring the late South African President Nelson Mandela.  Below are excerpts.

  • South Africa's President Jacob Zuma: Mandela was a "fearless freedom fighter who refused to allow the brutality of the apartheid state" stand in the way for a struggle for liberation.
  • President Barack Obama: "Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals."
  • UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "His compassion stands out most. He was angry at injustice, not at individuals."
  • Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff: "His fight went way beyond his national border and inspired men and women, young people and adults to fight for independence and social justice."
  • India's President Pranab Mukherjee: "He was the last of the giants who led the world's struggles against colonialism and his struggle held special significance for us."
  • Cuba's President Raul Castro: "Mandela has led his people into the battle against apartheid to open the way to a new South Africa, a non-racial and a united South Africa."
  • China's Vice President Li Yuanchao: "The Chinese people will always cherish the memory of his important contribution to the China - South Africa friendship and China-Africa relations.''
Would I be taking an opportunity away from the kind of person I love to champion in my stories - say, the grandmother who woke early to take several buses here, who dressed herself with great care in traditional garb to say goodbye to the man who transformed her life?

Would I, the privileged foreign journalist, be muscling ahead of South Africans who had lost so much under apartheid and had so much to thank him for?

Also, I wondered, do I fit in?

I had been watching the government media’s feed of events. His widow Graca walked with such immense poise, her head high but her face heavy with grief. I watched world leaders who I’d spent many hours stalking in hallways and who never gave me the time of day.  I watched as they paused in respect before that little white coffin.

They wore discreet black suits, elegant black dresses, graceful traditional outfits… and here I was, in jeans and sneakers. Necessary for running around and chasing stories; a bit disgraceful for meeting one of the greatest icons of the 20th century.

I watched later as those old grandmothers passed by the coffin. Many sobbed openly as they walked away. I watched people with their children, bedecked in the colors of the South African flag. The parents looked heartbroken, while their children looked happy and oblivious.  Those young faces said, I can do anything, I can be anything.  

And it was all thanks to that old man in that coffin whose significance they cannot yet understand.

I worried about this. And so, in my sleep-deprived paranoia, I asked a security guard what he thought. Was I dressed appropriately? Was I really welcome in this hallowed space?

And this is one of the many things I really love about this country: He looked at me as if I were mad. “Go on,” he said, gesturing for me to come inside, “You’re welcome.”

And so, I grabbed what I hope was an appropriately respectful jacket - a gorgeous tapestry number loaned to me by my boss for my on-camera shots - and in I went.

I walked in with a young radio journalist. She produces her own show and covers issues in the Zulu community. She’s smart, self-assured and successful.

“If it weren’t for him,” she said, “I’d be a tea girl somewhere.”

That happens pretty often in this country: you’re driving down the road of life, and you think you’re living in a normal country - and then a comment like that hits you in the face like an 18-wheeler. You remember: Oh, right. That happened. That really happened, and not so long ago, at that.  

I experienced that personally for the first time when I visited the Apartheid Museum years earlier. My husband and I are American citizens, and saw apartheid with a spectator’s eye. Apartheid ended when we were in middle school. Our parents told us it was wrong, an outrage, but we had no visceral connection to it.

So we were stopped in our tracks by a photo of a couple who were forced into exile over apartheid-era decency laws. She was of Indian origin. And her husband was a tall, professorial white guy.

I am of Indian origin. And my husband is a tall, professorial white guy.

As we were all commiserating in front of the coffin about the lives we could never have had if not for Nelson Mandela, the security guards brought the line to a halt.

A young woman a wheelchair was in front of us. She wanted to see his face. Security rushed to help her caretaker as he heaved her up to the level of the coffin. Yes, I thought, we truly are all welcome here.

And then it was my turn. I took a few hesitant steps. They had told us to move quickly. I noted with appreciation that he was wearing one of his signature batik-patterned “Madiba” shirts. I could only see the profile of his face, a shock of white hair. I stared.

“No staring,” a guard snapped.

And then it was over.

I had been watching all morning as people had paid their respects with little gestures: the sign of the cross, a salute, a bow. I didn’t do any of those. I just stared, like the awkward reporter I am.

Had I not had the glare of the TV cameras on me, and been allowed to stop, I might have done it differently.

I might have even said a few words.

Really, just two: thank you.

  • Police form a barricade after the the cut off time for viewing the body of Nelson Mandela outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 13, 2013.
  • Crowds of people walk after learning they would not be able to view Nelson Mandela's body at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 13, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • South African police control the crowd following a crush as people jostled to see former South African president Nelson Mandela on the last day of his lying in state in Pretoria, Dec. 13, 2013.
  • People line up to catch a bus to see the remains of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 12, 2013.
  • People line up for courtesy buses to ferry them to the Union Buildings to view the body of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, Dec. 12, 2013.
  • A woman weeps after paying her respects to Nelson Mandela as Mandela lies in state for the second day at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 12, 2013.
  • South African mourners hold posters of former president Nelson Mandela, while chanting slogans as the convoy transporting his remains passes by in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
  • Military personnel carry the remains of the late Nelson Mandela upon arrival at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
  • Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel, right, pays her respects to the former South African president at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
  • Mourners line up after waiting for hours to get into a bus to go to the Union Buildings where the casket of Nelson Mandela lies in state for three days in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
  • People react as the procession for former South African president Nelson Mandela leaves the military hospital in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
  • Defense force personnel and hospital staff salute a procession for former South African president Nelson Mandela as it leaves the military hospital in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
  • Women wave South African national flags before the cortege carrying the coffin of former South African President Nelson Mandela passes by in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.

You May Like

US Companies Pledge Action on Climate Change

Goals include reducing emissions by as much as 50 percent, reducing water usage by 80 percent, and buying 100 percent renewable energy

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

UNICEF: Hidden Epidemic of HIV Among Adolescents

Researchers warn that Asia Pacific nations facing sharp rise in incidence of HIV among adolescents

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Deon Johnston from: Pretoria, South Africa
December 13, 2013 10:47 AM
Again, you're welcome.

by: omung'ala olubuyi from: kenya
December 12, 2013 5:21 AM
We love u papa but god loves u most

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs