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

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor 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.
Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisisi
X
March 06, 2015 12:28 AM
There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisis

There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Growing Concerns Over Whether Myanmar’s Next Elections Will Be Fair

Myanmar has scheduled national elections for November that are also expected to include a landmark referendum on the country's constitution. But there are growing concerns over whether the government is taking the necessary steps to prepare for a free and fair vote. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was recently in Myanmar and files this report from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.
Video

Video Nigeria’s Ogonis Divided Over Resuming Oil Production

More than two decades ago, Nigeria’s Ogoni people forced Shell oil company to cease drilling on their land, saying it was polluting the environment. Now, some Ogonis say it’s time for the oil to flow once again. Chris Stein reports from Kegbara Dere, Nigeria.
Video

Video Winter Weather Strikes Eastern US...Again!

A new wintry blast has hit more than 20 states in the U.S. Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region, adding more snow to the piles from previous storms. Tired of shoveling snow, breaking the ice and dealing with accidents, flight delays and property damage, most Americans hope this is the last bout of cold for the season. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Myanmar's Traditional Fashion Choices Endure

The sartorial choices of Myanmar’s men and women quickly catch the eye of any visitor to the tropical Southeast Asian country. But at a time when Myanmar’s political and economic opening is bringing affordable western fashions to the masses, will the country’s unique fashion trends endure? VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Yangon explores that question.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More