Letter From Soweto: Mourning and Celebrating Outside Mandela's Old Home

Gideon Levy and Alex Levac join tens of thousands of people at Mandela's memorial service, in a nation that seems a little surprised at the outpouring of sympathy from the world over.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

JOHANNESBURG – Rain began falling in Soweto Monday evening, drenching the parade of men pushing trash carts. They marched down the roads leading out of the city in long lines, black men with gloomy eyes, dressed in rags, wrapped in torn plastic bags, pushing their daily haul with the last remnants of their strength. The death of the township’s most famous resident changed their lives not one whit: They remain in their terrible poverty long after Nelson Mandela’s great victory.

The local television station broadcast the parade of world leaders landing, one after another. As of Monday night, 91 national leaders had already promised to attend Tuesday's memorial service; the broadcaster hastened to declare that only the UN General Assembly drew similar numbers.

When I landed Monday morning, I spotted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon alighting from his plane.

Near the huge soccer stadium in the corner of Soweto, preparations were being completed for the mother of all memorials, including a military helicopter overhead and emergency work crews on the ground, trimming the grass in a touching last-minute effort.

In the Expo building, thousands of journalists from all over the world were awaiting their press passes for Tuesday's’s memorial service. Standing in the long line, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour told me she has been thinking a lot over the last few days about how much Israel needs its own Mandela.

But none of this had the slightest impact on the garbage men of Soweto, who continued their daily grind with no past, no present and no future.

South Africa seemed both sad and moved on Monday, and perhaps also a bit surprised at the scale of this phenomenon. The death of their national hero sparked an international mourning frenzy, the likes of which has never been seen before.

Our El Al plane was late, after two men from the President’s Residence arrived at the airport, left again and then returned according to their changing orders from above. As of this writing, it seems that the friend of the former apartheid regime, President Shimon Peres, won’t be coming, so Israel will once again stand out in its isolation.

But this is South Africa’s day – 10 days of mourning for it, and 10 days of repentance for the world, which for once has chosen to identify with an exemplary figure.

At 6 A.M. Tuesday morning, the stadium will open, and more than 90,000 people – including some 1,000 statesmen – will pour in to bid Mandela goodbye. South Africa itself has been mourning for days already.

Toward evening on Monday, we visited Mandela’s legendary house at 8115 Vilakazi Street in Soweto’s Orlando West district. This is where the whites moved the black gold miners from Johannesburg’s suburbs early last century, claiming they spread disease.

And this is where it all began. On June 16, 1976, Soweto’s schoolchildren went on strike because the regime was forcing them to learn Afrikaans, the language of apartheid. Hundreds of people were killed in the ensuing riots, which many viewed as the beginning of the end.

In Mandela’s house, which has become a museum, the bullet holes from various assassination attempts were still visible. But outside, there was a festival – a festival of mourning such as only Africa knows how to put on, with dance and song.

Speakers from the neighborhood mounted an improvised stage to whip up the crowd’s enthusiasm: “Viva Mandela! Viva the Communist Party! Viva Africa!” Soweto’s answer to Hyde Park. The heaps of flowers at the entrance to the house had long since been blown away; the memorial candles were fighting for their lives in the rain.

On pieces of cardboard attached to the walls of the house, dozens of residents had written notes to their hero: “Thanks for making it possible”; “A winner is someone who dreams and doesn’t give in.” Others were taking souvenir pictures beside his photograph, waving their fists in the air, as if trying to imitate him.

The Senegalese singer Moh Dediouf arrived and bent down to light a memorial candle. Everything he has accomplished in his life came from Mandela, he told us, so he came to say thank you.

Later, darkness fell on the houses of Soweto – the well-tended model neighborhood around Mandela’s house, and the tin shacks of its poorer neighborhoods, home to anywhere from one to three million blacks. No one knows for sure. By comparison, Gaza looks like a luxurious suburb.

It was sad in Soweto last night, but also happy. Aside from the trash collectors, it seems everyone here knows that this was a very different place before Mandela.

South Africans lay flowers in memory of Mandela, JohannesburgCredit: Alex Levac
South Africans honor Nelson Mandela
South Africans gather in memory of Mandela in Johannesburg
Child holds Mandela flag in Johannesburg
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South Africans honor Nelson MandelaCredit: Alex Levac
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South Africans gather in memory of Mandela in JohannesburgCredit: Alex Levac
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Child holds Mandela flag in JohannesburgCredit: Alex Levac
Haaretz's Alex Levac at Mandela's memorial service

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