Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013: South Africa Prepares Its Goodbye

Stephen A. Crockett Jr.
People light candles outside the house of late South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. 

How do you say goodbye to a man whose life has had a profound impact on just about every world leader, sports hero, politician, college student, professor and Hollywood star? How do you capture the impact of that life in a ceremony? How do you memorialize a man who spent almost a third of his life locked away, when his only crime was asking that his people be free, and even on his release held no hate for his captors? And more importantly, where does the body go?

On Thursday Nelson at approximately 1:50 p.m. ET, Nelson Mandela left this world in much better shape than he found it.


Even the sky is in mourning in Johannesburg as CNN reports, gray rain clouds covering the area this morning. Children have used rocks to spell out "We love you Mandela" in front of his home. Some have left stuffed animals, and others lit candles and wept. In Soweto Township residents gathered around the house where Mandela lived before he was arrested in 1962 and sang freedom songs. Across the United States, from D.C. to Los Angeles, flowers and candles were left in front of murals bearing his likeness, CNN reports.

During his 27-year stay in prison for protesting unjust laws, Mandela contracted tuberculosis while working in a lime quarry. Yet years of hard labor in prison couldn't break Mandela. A racist government couldn't break Mandela. Tuberculosis stifling his breathing couldn't break Mandela, who from his deathbed, with tubes running through his mouth into his lungs, continued to fight for a better life.

"On his 'deathbed' he is teaching us lessons; lessons in patience, in love, lessons of tolerance," his daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, told SABC television news earlier this year. "Every moment I get with him I'm amazed. There are times where I have to pinch myself that I come from this man who is a fighter even though you can see he is struggling, but fighting spirit is still there with him."

In the end his lungs would betray him, as infections became the enemy, and eventually, like most things too good for this world, he passed.    


"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," Mandela said after he was freed in 1990.

Surrounded by his family in his Houghton, Johannesburg, home Mandela drew his last breath, and what's left for the rest of the world is a void that will be impossible to fill. What's left for South Africa are the logistics of trying to bury a man whose spirit, legacy, impact and cultural significance far outlast his physical being.


Amid the grief, South Africa will have to publicly mourn one of the greatest humanitarians this world has ever known.

According to the Guardian, the funeral will rival that of Pope John Paul II in 2005, which drew five kings, six queens and 70 presidents and prime ministers, as well as 2 million faithful.


The Guardian, which has seen an internal South African document in preparation for this day, sets out a 12-day schedule from the moment of Mandela's death. Although the Guardian reports that the document was drawn up a year ago and is subject to revisions, it has Mandela's body being moved to the morgue under heavy guard.

There will be condolence books at "all foreign missions, Nelson Mandela Foundation, Union Buildings, and possibly Soweto Mandela Museum" during the first few days, the Guardian reports. 


On the sixth day, there will be a memorial in which South African president Jacob Zuma will speak. On Day 8, Mandela's body will be encased in a glass coffin and placed in the Pretoria city hall for three days.

There will be a rehearsal for the official state funeral on Day 9. Day 10 calls for more prep, including mass street closings, and the body will be taken for its final preparations. Day 11 is a procession from the mortuary to the Union Buildings and state funeral. Day 12 is the mourning procession through the streets, then to the family home for burial, the Guardian reports.


Every living president who can attend will.

Oprah Winfrey is expected to attend. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, who were, according to the BBC, at the U.K. and European premiere of the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom when the news broke, will attend.


This massive event of collective remembrance and worldwide grieving will make the World Cup crowd look small.

South Africa must ready itself for the global attention and outpouring of love that will be shown in the next two weeks. Mandela isn’t done teaching. Even in his death the lesson is being given to South Africa and therefore to us all: that sometimes the odds are against you, and sometimes it all feels overwhelming, but trust in the compassion you feel and the logistics will work themselves out.


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