The Rest

Dec 9, 2013

Dancing for Mandela in Durban, where grief crept up slowly

In Durban, the people danced as they grieved for Nelson Mandela. But emotions at the site of his imprisonment spilled over. Australian writer and academic Michael Richardson reports.

Durban didn't react immediately to the death of Nelson Mandela. In the city centre, produce was bought and sold, minibuses roared around corners, men got their hair cut in roadside salons. There were no grieving crowds on the streets. No one had shut down their business or taken the day off. At the city hall, a handful of flowers lay on the steps and officials had set up a small memorial with a book to write messages for Mandela. Few had written in it. Life rolled on, and dealing with its daily realities took precedence over mourning -- at least for now. On Saturday night, hundreds were crammed inside city hall, almost all in the black and green or yellow of the African National Congress. Across the room, I thought I glimpsed another white face but I can’t be sure. From the stage, pastors and politicians delivered an electrifying mix of speeches, sermons and gospel songs. Most were in Zulu, but we could clap and dance and smile. Smiling was what mattered. This was to celebrate Tata Madiba's life, not mourn his death. Tears were there, of course, but these were women and men inspired to keep building the South Africa of Mandela’s dreams. After, the crowd took to the streets, singing, dancing and clapping into the night. By now, there were fewer than 200 of us. From restaurant doorways and apartment windows people cheered or simply watched. Every few metres we would stop and the men at the centre would start a new dance. But our numbers never grew; this was for ANC members and activists, it seemed. As much a political rally as a memorial; although such distinctions are largely meaningless here. For a while I talked to a local writer. Cileswa was optimistic about the future, but wondered whether the coming months would be free of unrest. For many in South Africa, Cileswa included, Mandela’s legacy is more complex than for the rest of the world. Freeing the people from apartheid was remarkable, but some feel that neither the settlement nor the years that followed sufficiently addressed South Africa’s entrenched economic inequality. Corruption and political dominance by the ANC are also ongoing problems. Cileswa wondered if Mandela’s passing might not give South Africans permission to cast their vote for other parties -- almost as if with him no longer watching, they would be free to move beyond the ANC. But she worried too that such change would not be easy. On Sunday we drove to the Midlands, mountainous countryside outside Durban. Here, in 1962, Mandela was captured by government forces. It was the event that began his imprisonment, and his long walk to freedom. We stopped at the site of his capture, now the location of a museum and monument. Cars slowed as they passed and many pulled over or turned into the car park. A steady stream of visitors -- white, black, Indian -- walked the path to the sculptural monument to pay their respects. From a distance, the sculpture was simply tall, jagged black poles, arrayed at different depths, but as the path drew us closer and onto the right angle, their etched edges alight to form Mandela in profile, eyes on the distance. Below the sculpture people laid flowers, took photographs and cried. Grief spilled out slowly, emerging from deep within. Like the sculpture coming into view, making sense of Madiba’s loss has taken time and will take much more. Over this week there will be public events, commemorations and memorials. His funeral will stop the nation. Durban fell quiet at his death, but it won’t stay that way. For many, mourning Madiba will mean dancing, singing and smiling, but it will also mean continuing to grapple with the challenges he left behind. Life goes on, but without their beloved father. *Michael Richardson is a former speechwriter, and did his PhD at the University of Western Sydney on literature, torture and the war on terror 

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