The day of prayer and reflection for Nelson Mandela began Sunday morning at the African Gospel Church in Orlando, an area of Soweto, Mandela’s hometown.
The anti-apartheid icon died Thursday night of complications from a lung infection. He was 95 years old.
Fleur Nomthandazo has been coming to this church, her great-grandfather’s church, every Sunday for the past six months to pray for Nelson Mandela’s recovery. Today, she’s here to pray for his family.
“We never cry when somebody dies,” Nomthandazo says. “We celebrate the life that they lived.”
But Nelson Mandela wasn’t just somebody.
“An unbelievable thing has happened,” says Zola Lengisi, 26, of Soweto. He holds two white candles that he plans to light at Mandela’s home. “To me, it was as if he would never die. We are having expectations that he will rise again.”
A few miles away in an upscale suburb, Colleen Davis also holds candles, as well as the hand of her 9-year-old. She says that the country has been saying goodbye since Mandela’s condition turned critical.
“If this happened earlier this year, when we thought he wouldn’t make it in hospital, the country was almost in hysteria,” she says. “But now … it’s actually much better. It’s a peaceful passing.”
For Nozipho Ndaba, the last six months from the day Mandela went to the hospital in June until this Thursday at midnight when she heard the news of his passing, she’s felt a profound uncertainty.
“I froze when I heard of the news; it was very difficult,” she said. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to be feeling. This thing should have happened that time when he was sick. That time when we expected him to leave us, to depart — he didn’t die … he’s been put on hold.”
And so was the country, she says. Consumer confidence in South Africa today is at a 20-year low. South Africans have never been more pessimistic about their economic future at any time since Mandela was elected president.
In most places, that would signal regime change, but the ANC, the ruling party, is widely favored in next year’s election. That’s largely because Mandela, sometimes referred to by his tribal name, Madiba, has been the face of the party since the mid-’70s.
“Because since all these years, when we go to the polls, we always go there because we know that the Madiba has fought for us, that the Madiba is our parents’ friend. Like our parent, also,” Ndaba says. “But now that he’s gone, we’ll vote for whoever we want to vote for.”
She says that kind of clear-eyed democracy is exactly what Mandela gave his life for.