South Africans Celebrate Mandela On National Day Of Prayer

Dec 8, 2013
Originally published on December 8, 2013 3:53 pm

The day of prayer and reflection for Nelson Mandela began Sunday morning at the African Gospel Church in Orlando, an area of Soweto, Mandela's hometown.

The anti-apartheid icon died Thursday night of complications from a lung infection. He was 95 years old.

Fleur Nomthandazo has been coming to this church, her great-grandfather's church, every Sunday for the past six months to pray for Nelson Mandela's recovery. Today, she's here to pray for his family.

"We never cry when somebody dies," Nomthandazo says. "We celebrate the life that they lived."

But Nelson Mandela wasn't just somebody.

"An unbelievable thing has happened," says Zola Lengisi, 26, of Soweto. He holds two white candles that he plans to light at Mandela's home. "To me, it was as if he would never die. We are having expectations that he will rise again."

A few miles away in an upscale suburb, Colleen Davis also holds candles, as well as the hand of her 9-year-old. She says that the country has been saying goodbye since Mandela's condition turned critical.

"If this happened earlier this year, when we thought he wouldn't make it in hospital, the country was almost in hysteria," she says. "But now ... it's actually much better. It's a peaceful passing."

For Nozipho Ndaba, the last six months from the day Mandela went to the hospital in June until this Thursday at midnight when she heard the news of his passing, she's felt a profound uncertainty.

"I froze when I heard of the news; it was very difficult," she says. "I don't know how we're supposed to be feeling. This thing should have happened that time when he was sick. That time when we expected him to leave us, to depart — he didn't die ... he's been put on hold."

And so was the country, she says. Consumer confidence in South Africa today is at a 20-year low. South Africans have never been more pessimistic about their economic future at any time since Mandela was elected president.

In most places, that would signal regime change, but the ANC, the ruling party, is widely favored in next year's election. That's largely because Mandela, sometimes referred to by his tribal name, Madiba, has been the face of the party since the mid-'70s.

"Because since all these years, when we go to the polls, we always go there because we know that the Madiba has fought for us, that the Madiba is our parents' friend. Like our parent, also," Ndaba says. "But now that he's gone, we'll vote for whoever we want to vote for."

She says that kind of clear-eyed democracy is exactly what Mandela gave his life for.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is a day of national prayer and reflection in South Africa as the nation mourns its first black South African president. Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, is being remembered as a Nobel laureate, a statesman and an exceptional human being who brought change to South Africa, and helped change the world in the process. Though his death was imminent for some time, that expectation has not lessened South Africans' grief. NPR's Gregory Warner filed this story from outside a church in Johannesburg.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR MEMBERS: (Singing in foreign language)

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The day of prayer and reflection began this morning at the African Gospel Church in Orlando, Johannesburg. Fleur Nomthandazo, whose name means flower prayer, has been coming to this church - her great-grandfather's church - every Sunday for the past six months, to pray for Nelson Mandela's recovery. Today, she's here to pray for his family.

So, you're almost smiling.

FLEUR NOMTHANDAZO: I am, actually. I mean, we never cry. When somebody dies, we celebrate the life that they lived 'cause we believe they're in a better place also.

WARNER: But Nelson Mandela wasn't just somebody.

ZOLA LENGISI: An unbelievable thing has happened. To me, it was as if he would never die.

WARNER: Twenty-six-year-old Zola Lengisi, of Soweto, holds two white candles. He plans to light them at Mr. Mandela's house.

LENGISI: We are having expectations that he will arise again.

WARNER: A few miles away in an upscale suburb, Colleen Davis also holds candles as well as the hand of her 9-year-old. She says that the country has been saying goodbye since Nelson Mandela's condition first turned critical, this summer.

COLLEEN DAVIS: If this happened earlier this year, when we thought he wouldn't make it in hospital, the country was almost in hysteria. But now, it's almost a peaceful thank you; it's a peaceful thought. It's much better. It's a peaceful passing.

NOZIPHO NDABA: You know, I froze when I heard of the news. It was very difficult.

WARNER: For Nozipho Ndaba, the last six months - from the day Nelson Mandela went to the hospital in June until this Thursday at midnight, when she heard the news of his passing - she's felt a profound uncertainty.

NDABA: I don't know how we're supposed to be feeling. This thing should have happened that time when he was sick. And that time when we expected him to leave us, to depart, he didn't die. And we know for sure that someone has been - some oxygens have been used - he's been put on hold.

WARNER: While Nelson Mandela has been on hold, so has the country, she says. Consumer confidence in South Africa today is at a 20-year low. That means that South Africans have never been more pessimistic about their economic future at any time since Mandela was elected president. In most places, that might signal regime change. But the ANC, the ruling party, is widely favored in next year's elections, in large part because Mandela - called here by his tribal name, Madiba - has been the face of the party since the mid-'70s.

NDABA: Because since all these years when we go to the polls, we always go there because the Madiba has fought for us; that the Madiba is like our parents' friend, like our parent also. But now that he's gone, we'll vote for whoever we want to vote for.

WARNER: She says that kind of clear-eyed democracy is exactly what Mr. Mandela gave his life for.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR MEMBERS: (Singing in foreign language)

WARNER: Gregory Warner NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.