The day of prayer and reflection for Nelson Mandela began this morning at the African Gospel Church in Orlando, an area of Soweto, his home town.
The anti-apartheid icon died Thursday night of complications from a lung infection. He was 95 years old.
Fleur Nomthandazo, whose name means flower prayer, has been coming to this church, her great-grandfather’s church, every Sunday for the past six months to pray for Nelson Mandela’s recovery.
Today she’s here to pray for his family.
“We never cry when somebody dies,” Nomthandazo says. “We celebrate the life that they lived.”
But Nelson Mandela wasn’t just somebody.
“An unbelievable thing has happened,” says Zola Lengisi, 26, of Soweto. He holds two white candles that he plans to light at Mandela’s home. “To me it was as if he would never die. We are having expectations that he will wake up, you know?”
A few miles away in an upscale suburb, Colleen Davis also holds candles, as well as the hand of her nine-year-old. She says that the country has been saying goodbye for six months, since Mandela’s condition turned critical.
“If this happened earlier this year, when we thought he wouldn’t make it in hospital, the country was almost in hysteria,” she says. “But now, it’s almost a peaceful … it’s much better. It’s a peaceful passing.”
For Nozipho Ndaba, the last six months, from the day Nelson Mandela went to the hospital in June until this Thursday at midnight when she heard the news of his passing, she’s felt a profound uncertainty.
“I froze when I heard of the news; it was very difficult,” she said. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to be feeling. This thing should have happened that time when he was sick. That time we expected him to leave us, to depart — he didn’t die … he’s been put on hold.”
While Nelson Mandela has been on hold, so has the country, she says. Consumer confidence in South Africa today is at a 20-year low. South Africans have never been more pessimistic about their economic future at any time since Mandela was elected president.
In most places, that would signal regime change. But the ANC, the ruling party, is widely favored in next year’s election. In large part because Mandela, called here by his tribal name Madiba, has been the face of the party since the mid-’70s.
“Because since all these years when we go to the polls, we always go there because the Madiba has fought for us, that the Madiba is like our parents’ friend. Like our parent also,” says Ndaba. “But now that he’s gone, we’ll vote for whoever we want to vote for.”
She says that kind of clear-eyed democracy is exactly what Mr Mandela gave his life for.