The crowds gathered quietly outside the South African Embassy after hearing of the death of Nelson Mandela. A woman in a black raincoat clutched a bouquet of red roses and pushed them inside the chain link fence. A man in a blue sweater lit a white candle and set it on a concrete block. Others knelt at the foot of the statue of Mandela, his right fist raised in that signature pose that had rallied crowds to fight for freedom.
The scene was poignant in that it was on these very sidewalks that crowds gathered in the 1980s, chanting for Mandela’s liberation from prison and demanding an end to apartheid, the government-sanctioned system of racial segregation that oppressed black and other people of color in South Africa.
On this sidewalk for more than 365 consecutive days in 1985, protesters gathered, shouting at the gray, concrete building on Massachusetts Avenue that is now under renovation. They were hanging onto a belief that people and a movement could change and eradicate oppressive government policies.
Some of the most prominent protesters included Stevie Wonder, Judy Collins and Harry Belafonte. Other famous protesters included Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Amy Carter and Randall Robinson, who organized demonstrations to shed light on atrocities of the apartheid government and demanded that U.S. corporations divest from South Africa and that the U.S. government pass economic sanctions against South Africa.
The movement of a people mobilized across continents prevailed. On Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison. Four years later, Mandela was inaugurated president of South Africa.
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation,” Mandela told the crowds then. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another . . . the sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.” As president, Mandela fought for peace and reconciliation, attributes that endeared him to millions across the world.
On Friday, the outpouring of sentiment — from government officials in China, Iran, Russia and India, to Prince William in London — was incredible. World leaders had each been affected by Mandela, who will be buried Dec. 15 in his home village of Qunu.
The crowds at the embassy in Washington swelled with emotion, weeping and celebrating Madiba, Mandela’s clan name.
Peter Boyce, 50, a political consultant in Washington, urged officials to remove the barbed-wire fence that separated the crowd from the renovation site and the statue of Mandela.
“He is one of the few heroes I have in this world,” Boyce said. “What grabs me is he didn’t take anger with him when ruling South Africa. To do that as a man makes him more god-like. To swallow his anger, to swallow his pain, to swallow the injustices. Why? Because he was thinking of the whole world and saying yes, it is possible to be free without violence, to come out sane and rational. This gentleman, I hope there is a special place God has preserved for him. He has paid the price.”
Boyce clutched the fence. “The barbed wire represents oppression,” Boyce said, “something this man fought against. Take down the fence just for tonight.”
Bartek Nowak, 35, a fellow visiting Washington from Warsaw, stood quietly at the gate at the edge of the crowd. He said he came to the embassy to pay respect to Mandela.
“I love Mister Mandela because I love freedom,” Nowak said. “I wanted to be here in this moment just to stay here for a moment.”
Kelsey Atherton, 25, a writer who lives in Northwest Washington, waited on the sidewalk, holding a bouquet of orange and yellow lilies.
He heard the news of Mandela’s death on Twitter. After work, Atherton called a friend and made plans to meet at the embassy. But first, he went to Giant and bought the bouquet.
“It seemed the thing to do,” Atherton said. “It’s rare to get a chance to honor a man of peace and reconciliation. It seemed important to be here. It is a given that Nelson Mandela was one of history’s greats. He was great in a way that is rare … rare for his evolving ideology and pragmatism, taking a nation forward after unspeakable crimes.”
Atherton placed the bouquet inside the chain links of the fence. “You don’t want to lob anything over an embassy wall,” he said.
Carl Triplehorn, 47, a Peace Corps worker who lives in Cleveland Park, attached a poem by Maya Angelou to a stray wire on the chain link fence. The poem was titled “When Great Trees Fall.”
“They are wise words for what it means to lose,” Triplehorn said. “The words help us get through moments like these. Maya Angelou can express it like only a poet can — what it means to lose somebody but also what it means to grow into something larger.
“He was 95-year-old man. He lived a full, rich life. He contributed immensely to the world. It is a point of celebration. We should be celebrating. There should be drums and music.”
The poem Triplehorn had printed out read, in part: “And when great souls die, after a period, peace blooms; slowly and always.”