Ordinary South Africans, ‘there in spirit’ in a variety of ways as Mandela is celebrated

December 10, 2013

Neil Joss and Shan Holmes sat just out of the rain at a covered outdoor table in the Baglios restaurant off Nelson Mandela Square in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton. From there, watched over by a looming statue of Mandela, they could see a giant screen broadcasting his memorial service live.

“The fact that it’s raining at a funeral is a blessing in our culture,” said Holmes, 54, who is white and heads an organization specializing in environmental issues and climate change. “It means the gates of heaven are open to you and that you have pleased the ancestors. It is very unusual for it to rain like this at this time of year.”

She and Joss, 49, who is also white, weren’t the only ones dining at the chic pizza restaurant at an upscale shopping center here that was bustling Tuesday despite the memorial events across the city.

But not everyone was following the ceremonies. Three white 17-year-old students ate inside, more attuned to their cellphones than the screen outside. At another table, three middle-age black information technology experts sat sipping red wine out of view of the screen.

“I’m taping it,” said Kevin Chipeta, who was wearing a T-shirt marking the centennial of the African National Congress last year. “I am there in spirit.”

The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan shares scenes from the memorial for former South African president Nelson Mandela in the late activist's home country. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

The mere fact that these different South Africans can sit in the same restaurant, go to the same schools and aspire to the same kinds of jobs and homes marks a tremendous change in South Africa in the two decades since Mandela’s release from prison. And they no longer need to hang on every word of a major political event and instead enjoy the luxury of not having to watch if they choose.

‘A real leader’

“Why is the world focused on Mandela?” asked Holmes, looking at the screen. “It is because he was a real leader, and the whole world is hankering for his kind. There is a massive leadership vacuum in the world.”

She and Joss were born and raised in Johannesburg, but she was living in the United States in 1994 when she cast an absentee ballot in South Africa’s first democratic election. “Mandela made it possible for me and many others to return home,” she said.

Joss, a health counselor and yoga teacher, said he was unimpressed by President Obama’s speech, wondering how the president could talk about unjust imprisonment when the United States is still holding prisoners without trial in Guantanamo Bay.

“No one is willing to stick his neck out,” said Holmes, “and one thing Mandela was willing to do was stick his neck out, which is what he and all those who went to Robben Island did.”

‘This great soldier’

The three black tech experts were in good spirits. And while they weren’t watching any of the day’s memorial events, none doubted the impact Mandela and the end of apartheid had had on their lives.

“Mandela has changed this country, and not just for himself,” said Zakilele Khumalo, 40, who runs IT at the Defense Ministry. “I can go anywhere and do anything I feel I can do with no prejudice.” Recently he bought a modest house in Centurion, a once predominantly Afrikaner suburb in the Pretoria area.

“We’re all in the middle class,” said Eric Phenya, 46, who runs a seven-person IT firm he founded that does both government and private work. “If not because of this phenomenon, I don’t think we’d be where we are today: directors of companies, independent, thriving, confident in what we do with the urge to go and compete.”

Phenya said he had “no prospects” when he finished a degree at the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand at the time Mandela was released. But the government had a recruiting program and hired him to do information technology. After six years, he ventured out on his own.

“We are where we are today because of this great soldier,” he said.

The group offered mixed reviews of Mandela’s successors. “The ANC leaders were freedom fighters,” Khumalo said. “The ANC guys had not done any governing.” He said perhaps it was “wrong to expect too much from a 20-year-old child. South Africa is a 20-year-old child. We have to be realistic with our expectations.”

“South Africa is not fully transformed,” said Chipeta, who grew up in Botswana and immigrated to South Africa. “It might take time, but it feels like it’s taking forever.”

‘He was before us, really’

One table away, the three teenage students were finishing up lunch. They are “born frees,” Khumalo said, adding that it wasn’t a derogatory or racial term, just that “they don’t see black or white.” Was that bad? “The bad thing is they don’t understand why people are so fussy about the color of skin,” he said.

“He was before us, really,” Grant Skorten said of Mandela.

“My grandparents were involved in the movement,” said Victoria Thompson, whose grandmother was active in Black Sash, a group of women who took up the cause of black freedom during the 1980s. Mandela’s death “is quite a big thing for our parents and stuff.”

Asked whether their lives would be different were it not for Mandela, Thompson said that for starters, they wouldn’t have half the friends they have at school.

Their friend Montana Wernars was less certain. “I don’t know. He was an inspirational man, yeah, but . . .” she said, not finishing her sentence. “I don’t really know what he’s done. I’ve only heard from stories.”

“For us, even seeing the amazing change he did, knowing about him isn’t firsthand experience,” Skorten said. “We came into the world and it was like it is.”

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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