'Nelson Mandela set us free... His death is a test, to make us stronger’

Among the people of South Africa, emotions are running high – and no one knows where it is all going to lead

The women had not slept all night. They had come with their babies strapped to their backs as soon as they heard the news in the early hours of Friday morning, to dance outside the home of their nation’s father in a passionate and  jubilant celebration of his  long life.

“Yesterday we were crying, and we didn’t sleep, now even as you see me,” said Thandie Bushala, one of a trio of women who danced all day in honour of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and its first black president, who died peacefully at the age of 95 on Thursday evening, surrounded by his family at the Mandela house in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.

Ms Bushala and her three friends, who called themselves the Madiba Beat Crew in honour of Mr Mandela’s tribal name, was one of thousands of South Africans who came to pay their respects to the man who spent 27 years in prison for taking on apartheid but eventually brought peace to a torn nation.

Ms Bushala said it was only fitting that the mourners dried their tears, shrugged off their sadness and fatigue, and rejoiced in the life of one man who had made such a profound impact on South Africa, and the world. “I didn’t want to sleep. He was not sleeping there in prison,” she said.

Images of Mr Mandela’s smiling face leapt out from rosettes, T-shirts, flags and even paintings that people had brought to hold high above their heads as they sang liberation songs – the same images and songs that were banned under apartheid as former white rulers tried to stamp out dissidence, branding Mandela a firebrand for his socialist rhetoric and  demands for equal rights for the country’s black population.

That he had once been branded a terrorist and potential Cold War enemy abroad seemed unbelievable amid such an outpouring of sentiment. Ernest Sibusio, a teacher watching the colourful, fist-pumping, stomping parades from the sidelines, brushed off any criticism of Mr Mandela. He tells his students that Madiba fought for the people’s liberties armed only with his principles.

“He always reminded children not to have a physical fight to get what you want, [but] to use negotiations, to follow your convictions, and to forgive,” Mr Sibusio said. “His enemies were harsh and he embraced them.”

Hundreds more South Africans congregated outside the house in Soweto, the nation’s biggest black township, where Mr Mandela had lived before his arrest in 1962.

Bertha Harrington, 75, was trying to squeeze her written praise on to a giant poster of Madiba, while negotiating the rows and rows of tourists and South Africans lining  up to take pictures next to it. Her tribute: a simple  “thank you”.

“I was in Soweto when he was set free, and the streets were like this,” she recalls of the day in 1990 when Mandela took his last step in his long walk to freedom.

“It was crazy, everyone was dancing,” she said, giving way to a 12-year-old boy, who shyly wrote his name on the poster. “There was a five-year-old girl. They asked her what Mandela’s first name was and she said “Viva”, because everyone was shouting ‘Viva Mandela!’”

Souvenir salesman Masoka Satigke said South Africans and tourists are desperate to cling to Madiba’s memory, even in material form. “I think if we had T-shirts, we would do well,” he said. “Everyone wants a piece of Mandela.”

Nearby, a group of ladies proudly showed off their canary yellow tops, cheerleading the previously outlawed African National Congress (ANC) party that Mandela set up, and which still rules the nation.

The eldest, a 71-year-old calling herself “granny ANC” was keeping Mr Mandela’s revolutionary spirit alive, shouting out “la lucha  continua!”

She said the crowds were testament to Mr Mandela’s success in his fight for equal rights to employment, representation and education, which changed the lives of millions. But for this group of women, the country’s struggle continues.

“We are not yet free. The economy is in the hands of the whites,” explained Agnes Andries, another ANC member. “We are able to stand here as a group due to the ANC. He left us a legacy that we should continue.”

Nomalady Zondo, who runs a small restaurant, said she is mourning Mr Mandela’s wisdom, and his ability to shape politics even after he had retired in 1999.

“Long after he retired, he was still advising,” she said. “It wasn’t about him, it was about everyone, and not just in South Africa, in Africa and the whole world.”

World leaders are expected to attend the state funeral for Mr Mandela, which will be held on 15 December, on the eve of one of the most important public holidays in the South African political calendar – known since 1994, the year Mr Mandela was elected, as the “Day of Reconciliation” for blacks and whites.

Finally taking a rest from her dancing, Madiba Beat Crew member Nombumelelo Bunyongo said she fears that the nation will never recover from the loss of Mandela. Many people said they felt Mr Mandela had been the glue that held the nation together, and that without him, old the old wounds he healed could open up once more.

“There’s no one like Madiba and everything is going to change,” said Ms Bunyongo.

Nzi Mpiti, standing draped in the national flag and tapping along to the music, agreed wholeheartedly.

“People – they are not going to be united,” she said, adding that poverty and high unemployment are fuelling the divisions that exist to this day. She said that the moment the country now finds itself in is an opportunity for South Africa to observe Mr Mandela’s death as a test to “make us stronger”.

“We’ve fought for too many things to mess it up now,”  she said.

The days ahead


Memorial service will be held in the Soccer City sports stadium in Soweto


Start of a three-day period  when Mr Mandela’s body lies in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria


One of the biggest  ever state funerals will be held when his body is buried in the grounds of his Qunu home.