12 December 2013
In all my years as a news reporter, I have come across several heads of state and other high-profile dignitaries.
I had the privilege of covering former President Nelson Mandela casting his vote at the Killarney Country Club in Houghton, Johannesburg in 2009. Then, he was 90 years old and was helped to the voting booth by then Gauteng Premier Paul Mashatile and his personal aide, Zelda la Grange.
I remember the excitement I felt, being a relatively young reporter, as Madiba waved in his bright yellow “Madiba shirt” and a black overcoat to the crowds with his trademark smile. That broad, generous grin of his is an image that will forever remain embedded in my mind.
The second encounter was on Wednesday, when his coffin, draped in the South African flag, was being carried into the Union Building’s sandstone amphitheatre with great dignity and ceremony.
Since his passing away last Thursday, I hadn’t had a chance to stop and take a few minutes to digest the fact of his passing away.
That Thursday night, like many around the world, I was glued to President Jacob Zuma’s live broadcast to the nation – but as a reporter looking for an angle for a story. We worked into the early hours of the morning and throughout the next day on the numerous tributes as they poured in from all corners of the globe.
Unlike Tuesday’s official memorial service at the FNB Stadium outside Soweto, and the public gatherings at both his Soweto and Houghton, Johannesburg homes – which were mainly celebratory in mood – there was a real sadness to Madiba’s lying in state. It was so final.
I shed a tear when the national anthem played as the members of the South African National Defence Force welcomed Madiba’s dark brown casket to the Union Buildings.
As I watched the pallbearers carrying his body to the same spot where he had been sworn in as the country’s first democratically elected president almost 20 years ago, I felt a hard lump in my throat.
I was up front with a select group of journalists and photographers and witnessed as the family, past and present heads of state and politicians passed by the coffin.
Once my assignment was complete, and the mourners who’d been patiently queuing were given their chance to view Madiba, a colleague challenged me to take the opportunity and “be part of history” – a moment, he said, I would be able to share with future generations.
Without thinking twice, I made my way to a policewoman who was directing the flow of mourners at the entrance of the amphitheatre and joined the public queue.
Without preparing and without processing it, I was stepping onto the red carpet at the specially erected structure, and there was no turning back now.
I made eye contact with one of the four ceremonial guards in white uniform who stood at the each corner of the casket with sword pointing downward. In that moment, I wondered what my reaction would be and if I would be able to control it.
There was Mandla Mandela, Mandela’s eldest grandson.
Then there was the casket wrapped in white silk – holding the man hailed by US President Barack Obama as “the last great liberator of the 20th century”.
As I got closer to the transparent window in the upper half of the casket, my hand reached to my chest.
I realised that Mandla Mandela was looking at me, and as a sign of respect I looked away to my other side.
There he was – the Father of the Nation, the giant, the icon – in front of me. His face looked puffy, but fully recognisable, as though he had not been sick for months. He looked handsome in his famous Madiba-style shirt, which was golden brown and black.
My viewing was longer than I had anticipated, as the couple in front of me had stopped for a while to take a longer look at him.
I got lost in the moment as I stared at his face, with his grey hair neatly combed, his eyes closed as if he were sleeping – a well-deserved rest after all the hardships he endured during 27 years in prison.
He looked peaceful. His face expressed kindness and compassion.
It suddenly dawned on me that he was really gone. I bowed my head and said: “Enkosi Tata, ngayo yonke into” [Thank you, Tata, for everything].
I am not sure if my words were audible, but I noticed Mandla Mandela staring at me. I realised that, seated on that chair, was a grandson who had just lost a grandfather. Despite his best efforts, his pain was visible.
He looked at me and nodded sadly, seemingly acknowledging that it was okay to cry, as Madiba was all of ours. It was a special moment. I grieved for Mandla Mandela and the entire Mandela family, especially Mama Graca Machel.
I did not know Madiba personally, but seeing him lying in state – for that minute, he was my father, my grandfather, my icon and my Mandela.
Lala qhawe, Yem-Yem, Dalibunga.