The big story
When news broke in June that beloved former president Nelson Mandela has made to their lives. Matteo Fagotto talks to was ill, South Africans of all races united in wishing him well, thinking back to the difference he
We visit townships and a rugby field to speak to four South Africans about their first post-apartheid leader, former president Nelson Mandela, and how the country has changed since the advent of democracy.
Mandela remains a hero, a unifier and a darling to everyone. Who can forget his humility, his charm and his brilliant mind?” Dressed in a simple, black T-shirt and grey, loose trousers, 35-year-old South African journalist, Isaac Mangena, can’t hide his emotions while speaking about the man who helped free South Africa from apartheid.
Shouting to make himself heard above the music pumping from a sound system in a shebeen, or local bar, in Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa, he looks at the crowd chanting and dancing with amusement and a hint of sadness in his eyes. “People here in Alexandra township where Mandela lived feel they own a ‘share’ of Mandela,” he continues. “When he will eventually die, there will be sadness and shock. A part of Alexandra will die with him.”
A buzzing township nestled among the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg, just beside the rich area of Sandton, Alexandra is the first ‘home’ where Mandela settled when he arrived in the economic capital of South Africa, in 1941. To date, the township still continues to attract people from rural areas who want to try their
chances here, just like Mangena, now employed by a human-rights agency.
Although he and his family came from Limpopo, the rural province bordering Mozambique, Mangena considers himself a proud son of Alexandra, where he has lived for more than 20 years. He still has his dearest friends here, with whom he spends most of his weekends eating and dancing. Above all, this is the place where he heard, on February 11, 1990, that Mandela had been freed from prison, after 27 years behind bars for his relentless efforts in trying to overthrow the apartheid system.
Due to the information blackout imposed by the apartheid regime, Mangena, who was 16 at that time, had never even seen the face of Mandela before. He adds that he and his friends believed Mandela had been released only after seeing cars emblazoned with the banned African National Congress (ANC) flag driving around the narrow roads of the township. On that day in February, which Mangena still considers one of the most memorable of his life, Mangena and his fellow students decided to celebrate the event at a nearby university. The joy for the then foreseeable end of the apartheid regime lasted for months, and was so overwhelming that, as he says with an innocent smile, “neither me nor my friends managed to pass our exams that year. But nobody cared about studying at that time”.
Today, 19 years after the first democratic elections that brought the African National Congress to power, making Nelson Mandela the first black President of South Africa, the country is permeated with a very different vibe. The news about the poor health of the 95-yearold, who was hospitalised more than two months ago in a Pretoria clinic due to a lung infection, has brought home to South Africans that Tata (‘father’ in Mandela’s native Xhosa language as Mandela is fondly called), will sooner or later pass away.
And while the Mandela family is entangled in a bitter feud over a burial site, ordinary South Africans prefer to focus on the life, deeds and legacy of the man who acted as a buffer against racial violence and a moral authority even after retiring from political life in 1999.
“Mandela instilled confidence and a new spirit in all of us,” says Mangena. “Will we uphold his principles? I think so.” Hundreds of kilometres away from Alexandra, in the township of Inanda in Kwazulu-Natal, sits an apparently anonymous high school, made of a series of long, yellow brick houses separated by green lawns. The school, founded in 1901 by the first ANC (then the SANNC) president, John Dube, was chosen by Nelson Mandela as his polling station for the 1994 elections— the first democratic vote in the history of South Africa.
Mandla Nxumalo, a 42-year-old proud and energetic man, with a strong voice and vivid eyes, was a young man working for the Independent Electoral Commission and charged with welcoming Mandela to the station at around 6.40 in the morning.
“I was shaking and freezing. Mandela arrived,” remembers Nxumalo, his voice still emotional while recounting the event. “I will always remember the moment when I shook his hand. It was both a pleasure and an honour.”
Born and bred in Inanda, in earlier years Nxumalo had experienced a never-ending stream of black-on-black violence and
bloodshed between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). He believes the IFP was backed by the apartheid government, which was trying to divide and rule the black population in order to retain power.
“I saw houses burnt down and necklacings [this refers to the practice of setting someone on fire by lighting a tyre enclosing his arms and chest]. I lost friends and relatives,” he says. “But all this is over now. It is important to forgive and forget.”
After casting his vote, Mandela walked to Dube’s graveyard, just a few metres up the hill. He laid a wreath of flowers and said the now-famous words, ‘I have come to report,
‘Mandela instilled confidence and a new spirit in all of us. Will we uphold his principles? I think so’
Mr President, that South Africa is now free. May your soul rest in peace now’.
“We all ended up crying. This time, though, they were tears of joy,” says Nxumalo.
Today, Dube’s memorial boasts a renovated grave, with a marble headstone and a small obelisk. The windy, peaceful site dominates Inanda and the surrounding green hills, giving Nxumalo the priceless satisfaction of his birthplace being forever inscribed in the history of the country. “This is the place where the democratic revolution started,” he says proudly. Still marred by deep-seated government corruption, high crime rates, huge inequalities in the repartition of wealth and poor services, South Africa is still decades away from the nation everybody dreamt about in 1994.
“Apartheid might be over, but its remains are still here,” says Vuyiswa Moalosi, an outspoken woman living in the township of Sharpeville, who still feels bitter about the country’s history. In this township, on March 21, 1960, 69 people were gunned down by the police while protesting against the use of the ‘pass book’, a discriminatory document all blacks had to carry when outside their homelands or designated areas. At the time of the massacre, one of the worst in South Africa history, Moalosi was only five. “It was so terrible that even dogs didn’t dare to bark,” the 58-year-old remembers, tears filling her eyes. “I remember a family running up the street, crying, after they had lost a wife and a daughter.”
Today, the site of the massacre hosts a memorial – made of bare metal poles, one for each victim – and March 21 has been renamed “Human Rights Day” in honour of the victims.
Mandela chose Sharpeville as the signing site for a new democratic constitution on December 10, 1996. In a small stadium crammed with cheering people, he announced that there would be no more violence, death and killings.
At the time Moalosi was dealing with the loss of her only two sons during previous political clashes between police and youths. “Every morning, I had to pass over cops’ bodies to go shopping,” she remembers, her voice getting harder and harder. “But that day at Sharpeville stadium I was so happy. By sheer chance I was sitting right next to Mandela... It was one of the happiest days in my life.”
The consolation of some good memories is not enough for Moalosi, who in 1984 lost her job at a nearby railway station because her
brother-in-law was a political activist. But Moalosi’s economic woes are still not over. “The people who fought for South Africa are among the poorest today,” she complains. “While the widows and widowers of 1960 didn’t get any compensation, the black people who nowadays got rich don’t care about the rest of us.”
Nineteen years after the advent of democracy, Sharpeville is still a desolated network of one-storey houses and shacks, where economic opportunities are few and unemployment is rife. The township is situated in the Vaal Triangle, the industrial hub of South Africa that was hard hit by the global economic crisis and the post-1994-election exodus of hundreds of thousands of white South Africans, fearful of a payback time that never came. Scores of factories closed down, leaving the local population with no jobs. “I feel betrayed by whites,” continues Moalosi. “Some of them simply didn’t want to be ruled by blacks. I don’t feel they belong to South Africa.”
Moalosi’s statement highlights one of the major problems the country is dealing with. Despite the relentless efforts carried out by Mandela to bridge the gap between the various communities inhabiting South Africa, racial divide is still very much present in the country, exacerbated by city planning left over from the time of apartheid, intended to divide rather than integrate people.
As a result, blacks and whites mostly live separated lives, with sporting events being one of the few occasions to mingle. Mandela had wisely realised this when, in June 1995, he reached out to white South Africans by embracing the RugbyWorld Cup – with rugby being Afrikaners’ favourite sport – which was being held in South Africa. The photo of Mandela handing the trophy to then South Africa captain Steven Pienaar at Ellis Park stadium, Johannesburg, after the victory in the final against New Zealand, is now one of the world’s most famous. “I have utmost respect for Mandela. He used his charisma to bring people together. During thatWorld Cup it really felt as if we were all together,” remembers Cornel van Heerden, while walking on the very turf Mandela stepped on 18 years ago. On this chilly winter Monday morning, Ellis Park is silent and empty, yet Van Heerden, 28, remembers all too well the sensation he felt on that June 24, 1995. “I would like to thank Mandela for the country he gave us” he continues. “I wouldn’t have liked to live under apartheid, without all my black friends.”
Van Heerden is a member of the Afrikaans population – the white descendents from the first mainly Dutch settlers who arrived in Southern Africa in the 17th century. Although regulations imposing racial segregation had already been introduced in the 19th century, it was the Afrikaner-backed National Party that codified them in a coherent system of laws from 1948 onwards. But Van Heerden, who was only nine when apartheid ended, doesn’t feel any sense of guilt or responsibility for it. On the contrary, the affirmative action laws that now favour blacks in the allocation of jobs to readdress the injustices of the past makes him feel disappointed. “The government is implementing a form of reverse racism,” he says. “We young people didn’t take part in apartheid. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth.” But despite all the shortcomings, 19 years into democracy South Africans still have plenty of reason to celebrate. Considered its young age, the country has done remarkably well in keeping a substantial social peace among its various communities, and the civil-war scenarios pictured by many analysts and media have never materialised.
The housing programmes have provided basic dwellings for millions of people, achieving its most remarkable results in the townships around Johannesburg. And while the racial divide is still very much present, some areas in Johannesburg are becoming the spearheads of a more integrated society, with people of all races gathering for art exhibitions, concerts or simply hanging out together.
Back in Alexandra, Isaac Mangena is confident that South Africans will be able to move forward on their own, even when Mandela passes away. “Mandela will always be there as a point of reference for everyone, especially for our politicians,” he says, his eyes gleaming with passion and commitment. Then, Mangena reveals with pride that his younger sister is dating a white guy. “This is so amazing, after all we have gone through,” he smiles.
Last year this monument, which forms Nelson Mandela’s face through a series of steel columns, was unveiled in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal, to mark the anniversary of his imprisonment
Below: Isaac Mangena
and his friends found it hard to believe when they heard Mandela had been released after 27 years in captivity
Nxumalo got to meet his hero as he volunteered at the polling station where
Mandela voted in the country’s first democratic
Below: Vuyiswa Moalosi says that the people who fought for the country are the poorest and “black people who nowadays got rich don’t
care about the rest of us”
Right: Cornel Van Heerden I would like to thank Mandela for the country he gave us. I wouldn’t have liked to live under apartheid, without all
my black friends.”
Just as he did during his presidency, Mandela has once again united South Africans of all colours from all economic backgrounds, sadly this time it’s been over concern for his health