JOHANNESBURG — South Africans erupted in song, dance and tears today in public and emotional celebrations of the life of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who bridged this country’s black-white divide and helped avert a race war.
People of all colors hugged and shared emotional moments as anti-apartheid leaders like retired archbishop Desmond Tutu called for the 51 million South Africans to adhere to the values of unity and democracy that Mandela embodied. The tributes to Mandela that came from people across the spectrum showed that he had affected people deeply.
“What I liked most about Mandela was his forgiveness, his passion, his diversity, the impact of what he did,” said Ariel Sobel, a white man who was born in 1993, a year before Mandela was elected president. “I am not worried about what will happen next. We will continue as a nation. We knew this was coming. We are prepared.”
Sobel was with a crowd of people who had gathered at Mandela’s home in the leafy Johannesburg neighborhood of Houghton where Mandela spent his last sickly months. A dozen doves were released into the skies and people sang tribal songs, the national anthem, God Bless Africa — the anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle — and Christian hymns.
Many wore traditional garb of Zulu, Xhosa and South Africa’s other ethnic groups. One carried a sign saying: “He will rule the universe with God.”
In Soweto, the rough and tumble black township where Mandela used to live, pockets of dancers and singers shuffled through the street, celebrating Mandela’s life. Dozens of kids held oversized pictures of the anti-apartheid icon.
“I’m sorry, I’m too emotional. The tears come too easily,” Themba Radebe, a 60-year-old who was filming the street celebration with his phone, told a reporter. He later decided to share his thoughts.
“This is a celebration of the death, because we knew he was an old man,” said Radebe, whose eyes sparkled with shallow tears. “He brought a lot of changes to our community, because I grew up in apartheid. It was a very bad situation.”
President Jacob Zuma announced that Mandela is to be buried during a state funeral in his rural home town of Qunu on Sunday, Dec. 15. A memorial service is to be held on Tuesday in FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. Mandela’s last public appearance was at the same stadium in 2010 for the closing ceremony of the soccer World Cup.
Mandela’s body will then lie in state in Pretoria for three days. Sunday marks a national day of prayer and reflection.
“We call upon all our people to gather in halls, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and in their homes for prayer services and meditation, reflecting on the life of Madiba and his contribution to our country and the world,” Zuma said, using Mandela’s clan name.
Zuma had announced late Thursday that Mandela, who had been in and out of the hospital four times since February 2011, was dead. He was last admitted in June with a recurring lung infection from which he never recovered, though he was released in September to convalesce at home.
After midnight, a black SUV-type vehicle containing Mandela’s coffin, draped in South Africa’s flag, pulled away from Mandela’s home, escorted by military motorcycle outriders, to take the body to a military morgue in Pretoria.
In a church service in Cape Town, Tutu, who like Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, said Mandela would want South Africans themselves to be his “memorial” by adhering to the values of unity and democracy that he embodied. He recalled the early 1990s when South Africa teetered on the brink of a race war.
“All of us here in many ways amazed the world, a world that was expecting us to be devastated by a racial conflagration,” Tutu said. He recalled how Mandela helped unite South Africa as it dismantled apartheid, the cruel system of white minority rule, and prepared for all-race elections in 1994. In those elections, Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, became South Africa’s first black president.
“God, thank you for the gift of Madiba,” said Tutu in his closing his prayer.
In Mandela’s hometown of Qunu in the wide-open spaces of the Eastern Cape province, relatives consoled each other as they mourned the death of South Africa’s most famous citizen.
Mandela was a “very human person” with a sense of humor who took interest in people around him, said F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president. The two men negotiated the end of apartheid, finding common cause in often tense circumstances, and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Summarizing Mandela’s legacy, de Klerk paraphrased Mandela’s own words on eNCA television: “Never and never again should there be in South Africa the suppression of anyone by another.”
On Vilakazi Street in Soweto, 26-year-old Vathiswa Nongogo brought her nearly 3-year-old daughter Konwabo to the celebratory atmosphere. The crowd was mostly black, but mourners both white and black said Mandela transcended race.
“The feeling is genuinely the same among the white people and the colors,” said Nongogo, who is black. “And the political division doesn’t appear to exist today.”
The liberation struggle icon’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, said he is strengthened by the knowledge that his grandfather is finally at rest.
“All that I can do is thank God that I had a grandfather who loved and guided all of us in the family,” Mandla Mandela said in a statement. “The best lesson that he taught all of us was the need for us to be prepared to be of service to our people.”
Helen Zille, leader of South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and premier of the Western Cape, the only province not controlled by the African National Congress party, commented: “We all belong to the South African family — and we owe that sense of belonging to Madiba. That is his legacy.”