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

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid