Nelson Mandela funeral: ‘To me, he was like Moses, he brought the people out of the land of bondage’

Ordinary people all over South Africa gathered to say their goodbyes and think about what ‘Tata Madiba’ meant to them

Soweto

She would not normally have come and sat alone in the stands. But Harriet Moromane’s television set broke two weeks ago and, unable to afford a new one, this was the best way to say farewell to “Madiba”.

“I came to pay my last respects. I could not go to Qunu,” said the 62-year-old, seated in Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. “So I came here instead of coming to church.”

As the world tuned in to see Nelson Mandela being laid to rest at his ancestral home in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, across the country people gathered to watch on large screens set up by the authorities.

Some, such as Mrs Moromane, had no alternative. Others chose to surround themselves with people at these public events for this final goodbye to the former President. “I came from Bloemfontein. We wanted to be with other people,” said Lenato Mokoena, 29, seated nearby, and who works for a telecommunications company. She credited Mr Mandela with creating unprecedented opportunities for today’s younger generation. “We have more options now. Back then you went straight to work as a domestic help.”

Mrs Moromane, who had slipped a white “Goodbye Tata Madiba” T-shirt over her Sunday best, could make no special claim to knowing the former President or having some special place in the freedom movement. She had never met him in person. But she had been born and raised in Soweto, the township on the fringes of Johannesburg that was repeatedly made to bleed, and she had emerged from the dark years, keen to recognise the role of Mr Mandela and others in transforming people’s lives.

“We were perpetually living under apartheid. The people were not meant to know anything,” she said, a cotton hat pulled down over tight grey curls. “There could be nothing on the radio about Madiba or the African National Congress or the struggle.”

Mrs Moromane said she had learned of Mr Mandela’s name only in the summer of 1976 when students demonstrated about a new move to teach lessons in Afrikaans and not English. One young boy, Hector Pieterson, who was aged just 13, was shot and killed by police, while scores were injured or arrested. One day, Mrs Moromane, then aged 26, had been at the clothing factory where she worked when the manager made an announcement over the loudspeaker. “He said, ‘ Everyone must pack up and go home because Soweto is on fire’,” she said. “We went home on trains and taxis and we discovered Soweto was on fire. Everything was on fire.”

Mrs Moromane said police began firing rubber bullets. She was hit twice in the legs. She could hear the students chanting “Free Tata Madiba”. “I was saying ‘Who is this Tata Madiba man?’ And since then it has been going on and on – through the 1980s and until he was released,” she said.

There were no more than 500 people in the Orlando Stadium. Seated in the sunshine in the row behind Mrs Moromane was Godfrey Macheke, a 24-year-old who works in a warehouse. He was concentrating hard on the screen, listening to the tributes.  “ The guy was like a shepherd to us. From the moment we were born, we had the freedom to get education, to do whatever we wanted,” he said of Mr Mandela. “Before, people could only study to join the police or nursing. My education is a proof of the change.”

When Mr Mandela was released in 1990, Mrs Moromane, who is divorced and whose brother died in 1965, joined the crowds outside his home in Vilakazi Street to catch a glimpse of the “old man”. There were too many people.

“He has never had anger. After 27 years he stepped out of jail with a smile,” she said. “You are thinking ‘maybe it’s going to be war’. But he came out and offered forgiveness to those who had done terrible things to him.”

She also remembered standing in line four years later when black South Africans finally got the vote and elected Mr Mandela as the country’s first non-white President. “It was four or five hours in the line,” she said. “But everyone was smiling. We were liberated, we were out of the bondage... To me he was like Moses – he went and brought the people out of Egypt, the land of bondage.”

Mrs Moromane watched the screen as various dignitaries in Qunu paid tribute to Mr Mandela. She nodded when Malawi’s President, Joyce Banda, urged South Africa to continue on the path of multiculturalism and try to remain a “rainbow nation”, and she sang along with everyone in the stadium when President Jacob Zuma led a rendition of the protest song “Tina Sizwe”.

Finally, when Mr Mandela’s coffin was taken by gun carriage towards the grave, she got to her feet along with everyone else and punched her left fist into the air. As the television camera focused on Mr Mandela’s coffin, there was a roar from the stands.

At some point, the cameras cut away from the grave – a request made by the family. Slowly people started to drift out of the stadium and make their way home. Mrs Moromane stayed fixed in her seat.

She declined the offer of a lift. Instead, she said, she would take a taxi back home to Soweto, the site of such remarkable struggle, much of which she had witnessed first-hand. “It’s just around the corner,” she said.

Tributes tweets on the funeral

How about the funeral venue for Tata? Incredible. Definitely built for the greatest legend of our time.

Zweli Mbhele in Johannesburg

Such a deserved send off. Thank you Tata for what you have achieved, one cannot put a price on your sacrifices. God bless you.

Jeromy Joubert in Cape Town

Ndaba Mandela [who read an obituary on behalf of the Mandela family] has the echo of his grandfather’s voice ... Feels like in some way we are listening to #Madiba. 

Lillian Japhta in Cape Town

Tears in my eyes by looking at the images of Graça Machel and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at #MadibaFuneral.

Earl September in Cape Town

As my 9 year old nephew #Mvelo cries. Even he feels the pain.

Lindiwe Kubheka in Johannesburg

Thank you Tata Madiba. You made it possible for my grandfather, mother and I to vote for the first time in ‘94.

Uraisha Haswell in South Africa

Beautiful that Chief Ngangomhlaba spoke in Xhosa. Not much English is spoken in Qunu!

Andisiwe Makinana, ‘Mail & Guardian’ journalist

Free magazine

The Independent has produced a commemorative 48-page magazine to mark the life of Nelson Mandela in words and pictures. With contributions from Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, John Carlin, Anthony Sampson, Albie Sachs, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, this is an elegant record of Mandela’s achievements. If you would like a copy of the supplement, please email mandela@independent.co.uk with your full name and postal address. This offer is subject to availability and for UK addresses only.

Video: Nelson Mandela's funeral

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