Standing in a steady drizzle at dawn, Lerato Maphanga took a black marker to a whitewashed wall that’s serving as a condolences board outside Nelson Mandela’s old home in Soweto, South Africa.
“Thank you, Tata [father], rest in peace,” she wrote Tuesday. Then she signed it, “Born Free,” a reference to the black South Africans born after apartheid ended in the 1994 election that made Mandela the country’s first black president.
South Africans piled flowers on top of flowers at Mandela’s modest, red-brick home in Soweto, the huge black township where Mandela lived before he was sent to prison for 27 years. His many admirers also packed buses and trains as they headed to the country’s biggest soccer stadium to honor him at a memorial service. And once there, they sang and shouted and ululated, with some making themselves hoarse before the event began.
The country paused to bid farewell Tuesday, but there was nothing somber about it. South Africans have had plenty of time to mourn Mandela, who stepped down as president in 1999. He last appeared in public three years ago and was on his deathbed for months before finally succumbing Thursday at age 95.
“I don’t think we should mourn, we should celebrate,” said Maphanga, 19, a first year accounting student at the University of Johannesburg.
She was accompanied by her mother, Flora Maphanga, who was pregnant with her daughter when she went to vote in that historic 1994 election. Flora Maphanga says she has told her daughter many stories about the apartheid era, such as the 1976 student riots in Soweto that delayed her final high school exams for months.
“I also tell her she has it so good now,” said the elder Maphanga, who works in the police department. “You can go to good schools and choose any career you like. I didn’t have those options.”
The daughter replies: “I believe her because I study history.”
Apartheid is now a history lesson for South African college students. However, the traditions on display for Mandela’s memorial haven’t changed at all over the years.
On a standing-room only bus headed to the service at FNB Stadium, Matthew Mkhud led the passengers in a spirited series of tribute songs, such as “Mandela Is Calling.”
“I was supposed to be at work today, but my colleague said we had to go to be part of history,” said Mkhud, who works in information technology. “We can work tomorrow.”
After leading several foot-stomping songs while simultaneously filming the scene on his iPad, Mkhud needed a break.”Sorry comrades, I’m out of breath,” he said.
Soon the singing resumed, lasting all the way to FNB Stadium, the 95,000-seat soccer arena that has played a prominent role in South Africa’s recent history.Mandela packed the place in 1990 when he held his first rally just two days after he was released from prison.
The circular stadium, which is covered with earthen-colored panels to resemble an African gourd often used for cooking, also hosted soccer’s 2010 World Cup. Mandela made his final public appearance at that event.
And Tuesday, Mandela was the reason that dozens of world leaders, including President Obama and three former U.S. presidents gathered in a steady rain on an unseasonably chilly summer day.
The South African government and media had predicted the stadium would be overflowing and barred private cars from the venue, requiring the crowd to arrive by train or bus.
The warning may have discouraged some, along with the rain that was forecast to last throughout the day. In addition, Tuesday was not declared a holiday, and many opted to go to work, as evidenced by the usual morning traffic jam from Soweto into nearby Johannesburg.
The stadium was a little more than half full when the service began at 11 a.m.local time.
That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Eugene Kobuwe, 34, who had driven 150 miles from the small town of Zeerust to attend with a friend.
“I came to honor a man who took the country in the right direction at a time when things could have gone badly wrong,” Kobuwe said. “I’m not sad. I’m not going to cry. I just wanted to pay respect to a man who did a remarkable job.”
He then recalled his favorite Mandela story. It took place in 1990, shortly after Mandela had been released and when Kobuwe was just 10 years old.
Political unrest had sent black families fleeing to Zeerust. Mandela showed up in an effort to calm the tensions and reassure the displaced families.
“I really didn’t know anything about him, but I could just feel the vibe from all the adults,” Kobuwe said. “You just knew this was an important man. That’s when I began reading everything about him.”