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Mandela farewell turnout speaks to S. Africa’s troubles

Mandela farewell turnout speaks to S. Africa’s troubles

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Published : 2013-12-12 20:12
Updated : 2013-12-12 20:12

People queue to catch a bus for the viewing of former South African president Nelson Mandela’s body in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
JOHANNESBURG (AFP) ― For those who had expected millions of South Africans to pour on to the streets for Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the events of the past week may have seemed subdued.

But the reaction speaks volumes about the reality of everyday life in today’s South Africa.

Even before Nelson Mandela’s death, many had reached into history to find examples of what to expect.

Most predicted this towering giant of the 20th century to receive a funeral that moved the masses.

Parallels were drawn with the last rites of Mahatma Gandhi, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II and even Joseph Stalin, all of which brought millions of people together.

They also looked back to the vast crowds who gathered at Mandela’s release from prison, for the 1994 democratic election and his swearing in as president.

Mandela’s funeral has at times seemed anticlimactic by comparison.

The stadium for his memorial service in Johannesburg was only two thirds full ― with around 50,000 people in attendance ― three other stadiums slated for the overflow were almost empty.

The weather did not help turnout.

From before dawn it began to bucket down and did not let up all day, an extreme rarity in Johannesburg, which enjoys year-round sunshine.

“Considering the weather, I think there were many people,” said 30-year-old Zinhle Mzoba who was in Pretoria for Mandela’s laying in state Wednesday.

“I had been planning to go, but the rain stopped me.” But that was only part of the story.

Many South Africans appear to have been dissuaded by the government’s stern warnings about the logistical difficulties and harsh focus on security.

Thirty-eight-year-old Bheki Methula was one of those who grabbed bin bags or umbrellas and headed to the stadium, but many of his friends and colleagues did not.

“People said we were mad. That we’d never get in and it’d be dangerous with so many people,” he said.

“We got there at 7 a.m. and we had our pick of seats. I know a lot of people who were put off going. Organizing the other (overflow) stadiums made people think FNB would be slammed.”

Initially the government had even demanded that people going to the stadium would need to get “accreditation,” a decision that was rescinded only hours before the event.

Parents were warned to write their telephone numbers on the arms of their children in case they got lost.

“It’s a pity. There would have been a much larger turnout without all the official cautions,” said Methula.

In a country where many live day-to-day on their wages, there are also questions about whether the government should have called a national holiday.

“Despite the rain, there were many people who were at work and would love to have gone,” said Devan Pillay, head of sociology at Wits University, described the decision as a “big mistake.”

“Even at the university, all the administrative staff (wanted to go) ... but it wasn’t a public holiday so they had to be at work.”

Lucy Holborn, a social analyst, said one big corporation told staff they would have to take personal leave to go.

On Wednesday several people along the route of Mandela’s cortege in Pretoria declined to be questioned, saying they were supposed to be at work.

Many of those with more informal employment are unlikely to have been able to take a day off. The third of South Africans without a job may not have been able to afford to get to the stadium at all.

“It reflects how many people are more concerned with their survival and many don’t have the means to get transport to the stadium, this huge mass of relatively poor people we have.”

The government, for its part, has defended its handling of the situation.

Minister Collins Chabane on Wednesday praised the hard work of officials, marshals, volunteers and others “whose hard work over the past few days and hours produced the efficiency and dignity” for Tuesday’s memorial.

Mandela’s long sickness and his advanced years gave South Africans time to come to terms with his departure.

Holborn said the lack of public grief is not surprising.

“People had many occasions to come to terms with the absence of Nelson Mandela in South African public life. So perhaps he passed away some time ago and South Africa has realized that maybe more than the rest of the world.”

“It’s sad but it was time for the old man to rest,” said 28-year-old civil servant Vaughan Motshwene, echoing the sentiments of many.

But all South Africans would agree that the fact that Mandela’s funerary services so far received fewer mourners than Stalin’s is an inadequate barometer of public affection.

“None of this reflects on the fact that the appreciation of Mandela is very strong,” said Pillay. “In fact I am quite astonished by how widespread it is.”

“People who are normally very critical in the analysis of our democratic transition, on how we have not tackled the inequalities ... even those people are paying tribute to him.”

“There is not one person, one voice that I heard since Friday who said anything to the contrary.”

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