I arrived early Wednesday at the corner of Steve Biko Street and Madiba Avenue to await the passing of the hearse carrying Nelson Mandela’s coffin, just one of thousands wanting to see him for the last time, and in many cases, the first time.
Le-Anne Pereira, 47, explained that it was on her “bucket list” to see Mandela at least once in her life.
She kept repeating to me as we waited under the bright sun, “my boss is going to kill me,” explaining that she’d ducked out of work to stand in line to see the former South African president’s body lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994.
“I want to thank him for unifying our country,” she explained. “This is my last opportunity to meet him.” The line was long and I worried that she wouldn’t get to see Mandela just once.
Monica Ntimana, 29, held her five-month-old baby Grace up high and took a picture with the procession passing in the background. She wanted her daughter, who will grow up with freedom and opportunities, to know she was there on this solemn and historic day.
“As she grows up I will keep telling her stories about apartheid and how it was before in this country. It’s great for her that she was born during this time,” said Ntimana.
It’s a wonder to see so many wait for so long to thank this man for liberating South Africa from apartheid. And also to say goodbye to the hope he represented. The lines wormed through the capital for many kilometres. Everywhere, there were signs of the unity that Mandela made possible.
Two young women – one a black high school student, the other a white high school student – struck up a friendship while they waited five hours in line. They, like so many others, said they were grateful to be able to live in unity. If there were problems – disparities between races have been well documented – people seemed reluctant to address them, as though it was disrespectful to Mandela.
I talked to so many South Africans in line that I almost forgot why I was lining up. In the late afternoon, I finally walked into the courtyard of the Union Buildings and then headed up a flight of stairs. Le-Anne Pereira, finally getting to meet Mandela, went ahead of me. I entered a tent, and then stopped abruptly.
There he was. I’d expected a closed casket.
Mandela’s head and shoulders were visible under glass. His iconic face, peaceful. I felt pressure on my chest and took in a deep breath and paid my respects.
As I left, I saw Pereira folded over sobbing. The blond South African woman could barely walk. A young black soldier put her arms around Pereira, and told her that it was all going to be okay.
In that moment of unity, it was possible to believe it was.
Craig Kielburger is an international activist and co-founder of Free The Children.