Nation & World News

A Mix Of Joy, Sadness: South Africans Mourn, Celebrate Mandela

By Eyder Peralta on December 6th, 2013

As the sun rose over South Africa on Friday, the country began to come to terms with the loss of Nelson Mandela, who President Jacob Zuma called the father of the nation.

South Africans settled on the news with a mixture of “grief and joy,” New York Times correspondent Lydia Polgreen told Morning Edition. Like they had done since Mandela got sick in July, they gathered in front of his home in Johannesburg’s northern suburb of Houghton to pay their respects.

It was an unseasonably chilly morning, but South Africans sang joyfully in “praise of the name of Nelson Mandela,” Polgreen said.

News 24 from Johannesburg spoke to Khumo Mokwena, who woke up early to come to Mandela’s home with her baby. “I had to wake up and come here,” she said. “This was expected, but now that it is happening, it is actually unbelievable.”

South Africa has declared 10 days of mourning, and across the globe, government buildings have lowered their flags to half staff. The Eiffel Tower in Paris has been lighted up in the colors of the South African flag. In Washington, D.C., mourners gathered on the grounds of the South African Embassy, and laid flowers in front of a triumphant statue of Mandela.

That embassy, reports NPR member station WAMU, was the site of many protests through the 1980s demanding the U.S. impose sanctions on South Africa until they freed Mandela and ended the brutal practice of racial segregation called apartheid.

“I’m just glad we were able to see Nelson Mandela walk out of prison, be elected president,” Cecelie Count told WAMU on Thursday.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a congregation in prayer Friday morning.

“God, thank you for the gift of Madiba,” Tutu said, using Mandela’s tribal name. “Thank you for what he has enabled us to know we can become.”

Polgreen says that to get an idea of what Mandela’s funeral will be like, you’d have to look back at the funeral of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1965.

“Mandela was universally beloved,” Polgreen said. It’s likely all the living U.S. presidents will be attend, along with a sizable congressional delegation. Once you multiply that across the globe, it will be a stunning group of people.

When Zuma called Mandela the father of South Africa, it wasn’t an exaggeration, Polgreen said. It was Mandela, after all, who left prison in 1990 and preached reconciliation rather than waging a bitter fight against the regime that held him there for 27 years. He became the country’s president in 1994 but left office after one term, laying the groundwork for a healthy democracy that has thrived to this day.

Polgreen said Mandela’s funeral may resemble that historic day in 1994 when millions of South Africans lined up to cast ballots for the first time — to vote for Mandela.

Mandela will be given a state funeral. It is still unclear when that will happen.

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