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American Student In South Africa Swept Up By A Nation Grieving For Nelson Mandela

Sarah Nunes /


A banner honoring the late South African President Nelson Mandela hangs outside the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town, where one of the memorial services was held. 


Sarah Nunes
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – On Thursday, December 5, the night Nelson
Mandela died, I was fortunate enough to be in Cape Town, South Africa. It was
the tail end of my study abroad program, “Nation-Building, Globalization, and
Decolonizing the Mind,” based in Minneapolis and stationed in Windhoek,
Namibia. We were in Cape Town for our last week before traveling back home to
the United States.
friend Rebecca and I had tickets that night for a Maxwell concert at the Grand
West Arena, and returned back to the guest house exhilarated, windblown, and
anxious to be let in to the locked house. Our elation was cut short when our
roommate came to the door and told us Nelson Mandela had died a few hours
earlier. We went to bed exhausted and shocked, having been studying apartheid
and living in post-apartheid Namibia for the past three months.
We had
just seen Mandela’s autobiographical documentary, “Long Walk to Freedom” two
nights earlier and were now numbed to hear of the death of the man who
represented the end of this repressive era only 20 years earlier.
As a
foreigner in South Africa in this time of national mourning, I felt like a
voyeur on a family mourning their father.

Sarah Nunes /


The view of South Africa’s Table Mountain, from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years.



At a
time when so many leaders, politicians and media outlets were all trying to
claim Mandela as their own and position themselves on the right side of
history, exalting him as a saint, people in Cape Town all went to work the next
day, still needing to make the day’s pay to put bread on the table.
I was
fortunate to be able to attend a memorial service for Mandela the next
afternoon at the Central Methodist Church. The church steps faced Green Market
Square, where the emancipation of the Cape slaves was first announced in 1834.
Our group of five sat in one of the pews near the back, leaving space for
residents to be closer to the speakers. The atmosphere was a united sense of
reverence and unity, black and white faces in almost equal measure, which
wouldn’t stand out in some U.S. towns but was still rare in Cape Town.
In the
memorial service for Mandela, the senior pastor, Alan Storey, invited his
father, the Rev.
Peter Storey, to share first-person stories and
reflections on Mandela.  The elder Storey
had served the political prisoners at Robben Island 50 years ago and knew
Sarah Nunes /


The Rev. Peter Storey, former chaplain at Robben Island, speaks at a December 6 memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town.


the prisoners, including Mandela, were not allowed out of their cells to worship
and be together, Storey, a newly-ordained chaplain, would walk up and down the
corridor to preach, trying to make eye contact with the individual prisoners
and pass on a bit of hope and encouragement.
Storey told
how Mandela and his comrades petitioned the guards at Robben Island for six
years to finally allow a fellow prisoner, a Muslim named
Ahmed Kathrada, to
walk 50 yards outside the prison entrance to pay respects at a site
commemorating a revered Muslim leader. 

Melissa Rink /

Nelson Mandela’s jail cell is seen from a tour of Robben Island.


He shared the story of how the wife of Dr.
Hendrik Verwoerd, a former racist parliamentarian and oppressor, rejected his
invitation to tea and attempt at reconciliation. Instead of giving up on her,
Mandela surprised her by coming directly to her door in the former all-white
area she lived in, arriving by helicopter in the yard and winning her over by
the end of the visit.
made clear that it is these little things – Mandela’s commitment to engage even
his worst enemies in sincere reconciliation – that showed, over and over again,
his commitment to change and racial equality.
is no doubt that Nelson Mandela was a great man. He will obviously go down as a
historical hero, especially in Africa and among the African diaspora.
But I
learned during my stay there that a large number of people living in the
townships of South Africa and all over the country have not yet experienced an
improvement of living conditions or access to true democracy that was promised
with the official end of apartheid. People do not own the land they live on. Many
still live in corrugated tin shacks, have vastly unequal education, and are still
segregated racially and economically.
are the legacies of apartheid.
I asked
Namene Tekula Nekwaya, a close friend in Namibia, how the people he was
surrounded by were handling Mandela’s death. Namibia, a neighboring country to the
west and north, was annexed by South Africa and subjected to apartheid laws.
the West are exaggerating his death,” Nekwaya told me. “They just really get to
me sometimes. Many, many, many innocent people have been killed [for the
struggle Mandela fought] but they don’t get such energy for their passing.
Death is the only thing that is supposed to make all men equal.”
knows that after the commotion has died down, his country will still have one
of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world. He knows that
Mandela was called a ‘terrorist’ by former British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and that lesser known and
revered Mandelas of the past, present, and future will be called the same and
will not be recognized. Mandela is revered – and rightfully so – for his
forgiveness and understanding in the face of his oppressors, but we must not be
afraid to listen to those who are fighting for their humanity without placating
their oppressors.
many South Africans are mourning Mandela like a lost family member and universally
respected leader. A woman with whom I stayed a weekend in Soweto, in Johannesburg,
posted on her Facebook page: “words cannot describe how everybody is feeling.
The world is celebrating a leader, South Africa celebrating the legacy of a
father *crying.* We knew that he will go, but the country is in tears.”
Molly Hetzner /


A tribute to Nelson Mandela in Cape Town


All the
buses in South Africa ran for free on Friday, the day after Mandela’s death.
There was the sense of emotion I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that
everybody was experiencing at the same time.
we went in the city, we saw Mandela’s picture or announcements recognizing “Madiba,”
or people praying outside in groups on the street.
is no doubt that Mandela did so much for South Africa, and they love him. But
it would be a disgrace to his legacy to act as though South Africa, Namibia,
and the world are post-apartheid, post-inequality, and be complacent with
praising him and the work he did, as if the work were over.
I agreed
with the Rev. Alan Storey, the senior pastor at Central Methodist Church, when
he said, “
I am convinced
that while Madiba was still alive, he would not want anyone to bow down before
him. Rather he would say: ‘If you really want to make me happy, then stop
kissing my feet and rather make sure the children of this land have shoes on
their feet. Tend to the poor and the homeless. Work for the day that all have
houses to live in and lands to cultivate and schools and hospitals to attend.’”
Nelson Mandela left an admirable
example of the fight for the humanity and equality of all people that we could best
honor by adopting the values he lived by until his death. Rest in Peace,

Sarah Nunes /


On the ferry to Robben Island, looking back on the mainland of South Africa.



1 Comment

  • Sarah, such a good piece. I wish I was in Cape Town when the news broke, because we were so far from people to mourn with. I'm glad you could learn so much during your stay in South Africa, and thanks for your candid observations.