In a hut here 95 years ago, the village chief’s 13th child by his third wife was born, commencing the journey of one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary lives.
The hut is no longer there, but down a rocky dirt road early Sunday morning I found a handful of mourners sitting on plastic chairs watching the funeral service of Nelson Mandela on a large screen set up especially for the proceedings.
Many walked for hours to get to the viewing spot; many came late.
Most funerals in South Africa begin at 10 a.m., but Madiba, chief of the Xhosa, had to be buried when the sun was highest in the sky. An 8 a.m. start was necessary to accommodate all of the world leaders scheduled to speak, leaving many locals still walking long after the service began. Others watched the funeral on TVs inside their huts, a remarkable advancement considering how remote and rural this village is, 850 kilometres from Johannesburg.
The hundreds of people who eventually arrived, many in their Sunday best, watched a very political funeral, with literally dozens of mentions of Mandela’s deep roots within the ruling African National Congress and certain African leaders singing the praises of their own countries more than Mandela.
Still, the villagers in his birthplace swelled with pride, knowing South Africa’s greatest son long ago walked barefoot through these hills.
“This is his ancestral home, an important site for our country,” said my seatmate, local councillor Vella Gwadiso.
Not much has changed since 1918 in this pastoral territory of the Xhosa people. Mud-walled huts with thatched roofs dot the grassy slopes, as do umqokolo trees and umhlaba cactuses; skinny boys minding goats and sheep.
It’s possible to imagine Mandela as a tall, thin boy guiding his flock from behind – one of the great pieces of wisdom about leadership he learned in his boyhood. It’s much more difficult to imagine how from these humble roots he went on to challenge the injustice of apartheid, endure brutal oppression and imprisonment, transform his country and inspire the world.
Mandela’s granddaughter Nandi Mandela spoke on behalf of the former leader’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She recalled his generosity at Christmas, when he gave a gift and a meal to thousands of children who flocked to his home in Qunu.
“His gestures of kindness made those around him want to do good,” she said.
“[Grandfather] we shall miss your voice, we shall miss your laughter [and] we will carry the lessons you taught us throughout our lives.”
His life is a lesson.
Any child who dreams to do good in the world has Mandela as his hero. I own a dog-eared copy of Long Walk to Freedom and visited Robben Island, where he was imprisoned, to stand in a cell only as wide as an arm’s span.
It was a great honour these past 10 days to attend memorial services – both impromptu and planned – for Mandela.
There were many great moments, as well as those that were needlessly political.
It was truly moving to meet people mourning the loss of their ‘tata.’ I talked with people who lined up for hours to see Mandela lying in state, including one elderly woman who camped overnight at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to ensure she could see the great man one last time. I met blacks and whites standing together in line, joined in unity as they waited to pay their respects. Everywhere, there were genuine outpourings of grief and gratitude.
But it was also hard to embrace all of the politicking around the state memorial and funeral.
The ANC constantly gave out propaganda to mourners lining the streets, from t-shirts, to flags, to posters. One incident that hit close to home for me, given my friendship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the failure to invite him to speak at either the state memorial or funeral service. (He made a last-minute speech at the state memorial to quell a rowdy crowd.) Tutu was a dear friend of Mandela and fellow freedom fighter. There is wide belief here that Tutu was snubbed because of his outspoken criticism of the ANC.
Some small decencies were also missing for ordinary South Africans and especially those in his home community, whether it was a hearse moving too fast past mourners who’d waited for hours at the side of the road; not granting workers a day off to pay their respects; not inviting locals to Sunday’s state funeral; or at least providing buses so locals from Mandela’s impoverished birthplace, who live hours away by foot, could get to viewing stations.
Still, if they caught a glimpse, they were grateful. Tears fell easily. Many I spoke with fear that this could be an end of an era, the end of hope. They also spoke of how they will ensure that they and their children will work in small ways to continue his legacy.
I met children who want to be social workers, lawyers, doctors, community activists and soldiers so they can help their people rise above still difficult economic circumstances.
Many say that a man comes along with the moral courage of Nelson Mandela once in a lifetime. He was an extraordinary man who paid a great sacrifice for his beliefs, then led a nation from the prospect of civil war to reconciliation. He was the right man for the right time. I hope that one day we live in a world where the sacrifices of men like Mandela are no longer needed.
Craig Kielburger is an international activist and co-founder of Free The Children