By Duane Jethro. I cut in the queue to buy cigarettes. The big guy behind me approaches and says, “sorry but I was in front of you”. I let him pass. But he’s not content. He turns and says, “don’t be like the Dutch they were like that. They exterminated all the indigenous people. Just look at Holland, its all flat, indicative of the flat, all conquering mindset of the people that live there”. A short, stocky dude, he’s clutching a pack of salt, rice and milk. I wonder where he comes from. “You should be more like the Spanish” he continues, “they are nice”. “Did you know the Spanish were the first people to conquere the Cape? They liked eating babies but they didn’t like black babies that’s why there are so many black people in South Africa”, he says. He speaks in deep monotones and has that wild eyed look that I do not want to test with historical facts. I am confused but nod, and try to avoid eye contact. He pays and leaves, but the confusion and anxiety of the encounter hangs like smoke on my shoulder.
Commemorations, death and memorials. These are the things I am struggling with later that same evening. The words splashed on my computer screen seem to speak with the same accent of the guy at the counter. Dealing with my thesis, I now try avoid eye contact, nod and keep saying yes. The stairs creak as my girlfriend comes downstairs clutching her phone. “Switch on the TV, president Zuma is going to make an announcement, they say”. I close the computer and switch on the TV. The public broadcaster is preparing for something big. Jacob Zuma is wearing black, and conveys the bombshell that is Nelson Mandela’s death in his own slow muddled way. We become teary and embrace. A little later, Barack Obama splashes onto the TV screen. We’re ambivalent, but he speaks with sincerity. Tears are now streaming down our cheeks. It’s all so confusing. We’d never imagined it would be like this.
A strange feeling starts stirring as we hold each other and try to understand what’s going on. We feel as if we need to do something, go somewhere. Its 1am and the Cape South-Easter wind is howling. I scribble some words of dedication on a page and quickly get dressed. We drive to the City Hall where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison. The wind is howling. We’re some of the first people there. Flowers, lights and candles and messages have already started accumulating around the plaque. Slowly all around us the police and traffic officials start locking the city down. They don’t stop pedestrians from coming to the plaque. The wind is raging, angry. The people of District Six used to say that the devil comes in the wind.
Later that morning, the City announces that it has arranged an interfaith commemorative service for 5pm. Public transport is free. Free for the thousands of people who still live in shantytowns on the outskirts of the city 20 years after democracy. We decide we’re going. Thousands are already there by the time we arrive. In the intervening hours stages have been built and the City Hall is colourfully decked out. The atmosphere is strange. I feel a sense of loss. People are milling about as if expecting some kind of festival. Maybe it is a festival, a festival of letting go. Who can judge public mourning?
The occasion bristles with divisive political sentiments. The MC initiates proceedings with our national anthem, butchering it in the process with a warbled, garbled rendering of the Xhosa portion. An Imbongi, a traditional praise singer bursts onto the stage and bounds about from end to end of the stage flashing his animal skin, while exhorting praise with a voice hoarse with fervour. This guy could do well marketing men’s health products, I think. The crowd whoops and cheers his performance. It is beautiful and moving. I imagine it is about claiming his place in the world, his regal ascent into the afterlife.
It’s an emotional introduction. Mayor Patricia is moved. In her speech she reminds us about Mandela’s connection to the city, and the city’s place at the forefront of the country’s political transition. Mandela was incarcerated here. He was released here, and he adopted the constitution here. It’s all true. It’s also political. This is the Democratic Alliance country, the only major centre where the ANC does not enjoy power. But there are opportunities to challenge this. One Imam leads the crowd in volleys of call and response “Long Live’s” coaxing the crowd into declaring support for the ANC, illiciting much laughter. A group of ANC supporters gathered on one end of the Parade and sing and chant their own songs, signalling their own appropriation of Mandela’s legacy. Much human excrement has been spilled in distasteful public protests during 2013 about the inequality of service delivery in Cape Town. There are still deep divisions 20 years after democracy. Anyhow, these are distractions punctuating the sadness of song and tribute dedicated by leaders of other dominant faith South African faith groups.
The sun sets behind the city hall steeple, the arms of the clock nearing 6:50pm. The huge smiling Madiba banners begin to fade out of sight. The delegates gather together in a last show of unitedness before the music dies and the crowd disperses through the soapy blue ring of police that cordon off the Parade. As we filter into the city, young, barefoot beggars approach us again, asking for small change. These are Mandela’s kids, the Born Free’s, as the media wants to call them. These are interesting times. We’ve been plunged into another world of psychobabble and confusion, of sadness and mourning. Yet the struggle goes on.
Duane Jethro is a PhD candidate at the Anthropology Department of VU University Amsterdam. His research in South Africa forms part of the NWO project Heritage Dynamics. He wrote various blogs for Standplaats Wereld about football, violence and cultural heritage.