Nelson Mandela: From long walk to long rest

As South Africans gather to pay tribute, anger simmers in some black villages which haven’t benefited economically.

From Johannesburg’s streets where anti-apartheid supporters rose up to a clump of hillside homes in his boyhood village of Qunu, the great man made his mark on South Africa.

Hundreds of people danced, cried and wailed outside Nelson Mandela’s home in Houghton- an upmarket, leafy suburb in Johannesburg. It was here where South Africa’s first black president took his last step on “the long walk to freedom”.

He created a “rainbow nation” from a society shredded by apartheid that many fear could have descended into civil war without Mandela’s reconciliatory prowess.

But for Thandie Bushula, who hails from Mandela’s homeland in the Eastern Cape and had come from one of Johannesburg’s many downtrodden townships to dance outside his lavish home in the wee hours, the rainbow could fade with Mandela.

“Everything is going to change as there’s no one like him. People, they are not going to be united,” she said.

In the streets of Soweto, where Mandela had a law firm and home, 75-year-old Bertha Harrington compared the mood to the day that “the father of the nation” was released from prison after 27 years.

“It was crazy, everyone was dancing,” she said, hands shaking as they struggled to find space on a Mandela poster covered in well wishes outside a former home.

‘Struggle continues’

These are fonder memories of Soweto. In the 1970s, up to 20,000 high school students rose up to protest a law forcing them to learn in English and Afrikaans, that a then little-known bishop called Desmond Tutu called “the language of the oppressors”.

The police response was rapid and brutal. When the dogs they set on schoolchildren were beaten back, security forces opened fire, killing between two dozen or hundreds, depending on conflicting government and local reports.

By preaching peace, Harrington said Mandela helped avoid similar outbursts of violence.

“I just hope the current guys have the same ideas in their heads,” she whispers, disappearing into the throng of young and old singing liberation songs.

For Agnes Andries and her fellow supporters of the ruling Africa National Congress (ANC) party, Mandela’s legacy means that they are now allowed to stand on street corners and play a part in politics.

But she says that “the struggle continues”, as “the economy is still in the hands of the whites”.

Outside a ramshackle compound in the crumbling township of Alexandra, a wall of remembrance marks another Mandela home on Hofmeyer Street where a group of “young pioneers”, a South African scout group, gathered to hear the story of the great liberator.

‘No one is working here’

But one street back shows the shuffle to freedom that some parts of South Africa need to take.

Children bounce on dirty mattresses littering streets lined with mud and dilapidating shacks, and it’s difficult to speak to any coherent adult at midday on a Sunday, as most were intoxicated.

But Kgaki Maloke, says that boozy breath is the least of Alexandra’s problems. Continued poverty and disenfranchisement have pushed locals towards “nyaope” – a deadly cocktail of heroin mixed with rat poison, drain cleaner and anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/Aids sufferers.

“We still have apartheid. There’s no one working here.”

Mandela, he said, may have officially ended segregation but he did not wrest control of the economy out of white hands. “We thought after apartheid we’d get our land back, but it hasn’t happened, and there’s more poverty than before.”

And the future for the majority of South Africans crammed into boxes on the outskirts of towns is too bleak to shatter illusions of reconciliation through negotiation, Maloke said. “You can’t get revolution without war. It’s still coming.”

‘You don’t want war’

Over 500km south in Bloemfontein, shopping centres bear names of old Scottish families and huge farms are still controlled by whites.

Fifth generation farmer Colin Steyn hears the same battle cries from white South Africans visiting his underground museum stacked with memorabilia from the Boer war.

“Some talk of getting the country back,” he said. “How ridiculous. You don’t want a war. I saw war,” when fighting in Angola as Cold War fronts came to Africa, he says.

“All you would inherit would be ashes and graves,” he warns.

Instead, he and 80 friends in 1999 marked the centenary of the three-year Second Boer war by recreating every battle, using the same rifles stacked on shelves that have the number of positive hits scratched into them, as around 50,000 Afrikaners took on an invading British force ten times their size.

Steyn’s grandfather, the last President of the Orange Free State, knew that Afrikaners couldn’t keep power but decided they should instead make themselves “indispensable”.

For Steyn, a former state prosecutor, this still means passing down his profession to his son, who is also studying law.

Attacks on white farms are economically, not politically motivated, he said.

He says that Mandela “should get all the honour he deserves” for being so “unselfish” and that during 1993 negotiations with the government. Mandela left most businesses in foreign hands “to keep the machinery going” and later, pull the people out of poverty, Steyn said.

He treasures an accidental, face to face meeting with Mandela, who he calls “a benevolent emperor” in 1995, and recalls the “very soft handshake-warm and soft” as he struggled to breathe from the shock.

He says that as post-apartheid white anger has faded, “now it’s the blacks” wanting a greater piece of a pie Mandela knew he could only chip away at.

“If he died while president it would’ve been a great disaster,” he says. But Steyn is hopeful that despite his loss, the country will keep moving in what he believes is the right direction.

“Twenty years is not enough. We’re on track. We didn’t derail.”

‘A way out’

But another 500km across the border into the Eastern Cape lies an example of a township whose people were left to rot. Parents now wait for paltry monthly benefits to take to the tavern; one of the only public buildings in Dimbaza.

“That day, you only find old people in their homes. I think alcohol has become the way out,” said student Anatmi Ngodwane.

This purpose-built black enclave was created in the 1970s as a dumping ground for people “deemed surplus to requirement,” he says, adding that its residents’ lethargy “boils down to neglect” passed down by an apartheid government.

“Generations to come will also have that mentality. It’s hard to fight it,” he said.

A children’s graveyard outside town is testament to the callousness of the apartheid era – as a lack of rations and healthcare sent many to their graves far too early.

Dimbaza resident and mother Vuyo Pika said that today, kids are dying slowly in a “drug-infested” place. “Children are smoking drugs,” she said, while most parents are living off monthly benefits of around $30 per child.

Future generations

In other mostly black towns, however, the situation is better. In Qunu, Nelson Mandela’s boyhood village, 20-year-old Khumbuzile Gubenali says that Mandela has inspired the youth among the cluster of huts on a hillside into staying in school.

Rather than follow in Mandela’s footsteps to fight for his rights, Gubenale is determined to try and access South Africa’s economy as an accountant.

“There are very few people involved in accounting. They are not getting the opportunities,” he said.

And the alternative here is earning around $12 a day shifting sand from a riverbed.

His view of Mandela as a great but gentle man was fixed age 13, when he went to the family home to receive his Christmas present along with many other village children but was more interested in holding the man’s hands than playing with the toy soldiers he’d received.

He is one of 20 men tasked with erecting a large tent for Mandela’s funeral on Sunday-a job he says he’d gladly do for free.

He will also turn 21 that day, and like many, will be celebrating the life of a great man, mourning his death and thanking him for laying the path to further freedoms that future generations are determined to forge throughout the nation.

Source: Al Jazeera

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