Mandela: a graduate student on internship in South Africa experiences historical moment

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Kyle HarrisKyle Harris is a candidate in the MA Global Governance program, a UWaterloo graduate program based at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA). MA students in this program participate in an internship; Kyle is currently in Johannesburg on internship with CIVICUS: The World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

This story was first posted on the BSIA website.

A leader gone, a leader questioned: responses to the death of Nelson Mandela

December 17, 2013

Johannesburg, South Africa

It was a cool but festive night on December 5th in Johannesburg. My friends, colleagues and I were having a braai together in typical South African fashion to celebrate my thirty-first birthday.

At around 11PM news broke in Johannesburg that Nelson Mandela, father of a nation, had passed away earlier that night.  Everyone stopped. A blanket of silence spread across the festivities as each and every one of us realized what had just happened. Nelson Mandela, South Africa's greatest leader, human rights activist, and anti-apartheid icon had passed away.

My guests, composed of human rights activists, advocates and researchers from various countries, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds were universally overwhelmed. Some began to cry, others hugged each other or stood silently and reflected while still others began to talk about the incredible feats that Madiba had achieved throughout his life. As we came to realize, each in our own way what had just transpired two questions emerged; what will happen next and what do we do now?

In the days that followed Madiba's passing, Johannesburg became a spotlight for international media. Having lost such a great and influential leader, many South Africans spent the days following his death mourning their beloved leader. While there was still general sadness over his loss, Mandela’s death was not unexpected and he passed in his home, surrounded by loved ones, without any pain at the age of 95. Areas around Johannesburg that had been important sites in Mandela's life became vigils where individuals congregated to pay their respects. Mandela’s past home in Sowetto, the residence where he passed away in Houton, and monuments across South Africa areas became sites of mourning as well as celebration as people said goodbye and thank you to Madiba in their own ways.

During this week people often shared where they were when Mandela was first released from prison in 1990, what it meant to see this figure that had been ripped away from them, and how despite all his struggles and hardships how he refused to take retribution on the perpetrators but instead sought reconciliation.  

The memorial for Nelson Mandela was scheduled at the World Cup Stadium in Soweto on Tuesday December 10th, and as the date approached the feeling within the country began to change. South Africans could be found around the city celebrating and singing praises to the man that had led them out of apartheid.

The gates at the World Cup Stadium opened at 6 am but South Africans arrived much earlier then that to begin singing and dancing for their beloved leader. There was a constant drizzling rain throughout the day and the weather in the open air stadium was chilly. Yet the stadium steadily filled in the hours leading up to the 11 am ceremony. Already at 7 am, the crowds in the stands began singing Asimbonanga, and other tributes to Mandela. The atmosphere was electric and joyful as the crowd spent the morning singing and dancing as a whole. Hundreds of people were picking up threads of songs from across the stadium while other groups danced throughout the corridors. Tirelessly, people took the opportunity to celebrate together in a vibrant, active display typical to South Africa.

However, the tribute to Mandela at the World Cup Stadium quickly became the focus of the event as leaders from around the world came together to pay homage to Madiba. The crowd cheered amiably as American President Barack Obama delivered a powerful speech about the triumphs of Nelson Mandela with his typical oratory flair. When South African President Jacob Zuma emerged to deliver his words, they were far less well received. A universal heckling began as Zuma walked to the podium, an event that has continued to controversial in South Africa.

What became obvious from the tribute at in Soweto was that the government in South Africa is out of touch with the people of this country. What was intended to be an event for the people of South Africa, in honor of their great leader, had turned into an international media frenzy with the support of Jacob Zuma's government and had left the people wanting.

In the days since, Mandela has been laid at Qunu, his ancestral home and people have returned to their daily routines. The event demonstrated, and once again brought to light how far the ANC has changed since Mandela was it's leader and South African media continues to explore the significance of a population that increasingly is ignored by the government and which is ever more questioning the ANC.

  1. 2021 (3)
    1. February (1)
    2. January (2)
  2. 2020 (36)
    1. December (3)
    2. November (1)
    3. October (4)
    4. September (1)
    5. August (2)
    6. July (3)
    7. June (8)
    8. May (6)
    9. April (2)
    10. March (3)
    11. February (1)
    12. January (2)
  3. 2019 (49)
    1. December (2)
    2. November (2)
    3. October (5)
    4. September (5)
    5. August (1)
    6. July (3)
    7. June (5)
    8. May (5)
    9. April (7)
    10. March (9)
    11. February (2)
    12. January (3)
  4. 2018 (46)
  5. 2017 (53)
  6. 2016 (71)
  7. 2015 (57)
  8. 2014 (68)
  9. 2013 (49)
  10. 2012 (35)
  11. 2011 (21)