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The rainbow nation united once more in its gratitude to Nelson Mandela

Saturday, 7 December 2013 - 8:23am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Wake at home where Mandela died turns into celebration of a unity that has grown strained.
  • AFP

From two blocks away, there was little indication that this was where a momentous chapter of history had just ended. Tall walls painted coral, cream and khaki shielded smart but unshowy homes from quiet roads. Narrow lawns were neatly mown.

Traffic was light. But, drawing closer to the junction of 12th Avenue and 4th Street in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton on Friday, the sound of deep baritone voices, rhythmic clapping and ululations grew. There, opposite the home where Nelson Mandela died peacefully on Thursday night - a house set behind trees and closed gates but otherwise undistinguished from its neighbours - a party was on.

A tight knot of dancers and singers shuffled rhythmically up and down the road, the women wearing green and white wigs, the men blowing whistles. This was an impromptu wake for the man they knew as Madiba, but more than that, it was a celebration of the unity only he could have brought to South Africa.

Hundreds of people of all colours from this "rainbow nation" gathered, many of them families with young children who looked happy just to be at a party, even if they were not quite sure why. "She knows we came to see Madiba's house, but she keeps asking when is he coming to say 'hello'," said Faith Rooi, 34, as her four-year-old daughter Kamrelihle tugged her hand towards the dancers.

"It is very hard to explain to her that this man who she knows is important, who she sees in pictures, on television, on our money, has died and gone to Heaven. But one day she will learn about him in class and she will know that she was here, at this moment of history."

Mandela's body had been removed from his city home in the small hours of the morning and driven to the capital, Pretoria, but his spirit was very much present. Mrs Rooi, from Mr Mandela's Xhosa tribe, remembers the day he was released from prison as "the happiest moment" in her country's troubled history. "What he did, ending apartheid, bringing us all together in peace, that is a legacy that will benefit my daughter in ways she does not realise today," she said. Kamrelihle is of the second generation of South Africa's post-apartheid children.

Muhammad Hajat and Faraz Laher, both 22-year-old Muslims and recent graduates, are of the first. "You have to understand that all the opportunities open to us today are only open because of Madiba," Laher said.

"We knew that he was going to pass away, but still today it has surprised me what an immense sense of loss I feel. Only now am I starting to understand what he meant to me, and people like me." That thought seemed to dampen their festivity for a moment. But then, asked for their fondest memory of Mandela, they answered with grins, and in one voice, "the World Cup", held in 2010 in South Africa.

"It was Madiba's last public appearance, and his presence just completed the World Cup, he unified us all. It was as if for a moment apartheid had never existed," Hajat said. A short distance away, David Van Schalkwyk, 25, and Coralee Macnab, 24, a mining project planner and a primary school teacher, both white South Africans, watched from the pavement. Asked the same question, they also said, "the World Cup".

But they meant a different sport and a different competition in a different decade: the Rugby World Cup held in South Africa in 1995, a year after its first democratic elections. It is a mark of Mandela's ability to transcend his nation's divisions that his presence at both championships was still seen as a template of sorely-needed unity. Everyone who spoke to The Daily Telegraph in Houghton talked of how that unity was beginning to crack, and how, with Mandela gone, people were worried.

"The way things are now, they are not the way he would have wished," said Mrs Rooi's friend, Amanda Sikutshwa, a special needs teacher. Lehar, his grin slipping again, said: "We need to practise more what he taught us. There are day-to-day squabbles and chronic problems, and instead of coming together to fix them, we are moving further apart." Van Schalkwyk and Macnab agreed. "That unity between races here, it's going," Van Schalkwyk said. "Perhaps now, with Madiba's passing, we will remember how important it is, maybe he can unite us again."

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