Far from the madding crowd: Crowds mourn Mandela at Ellis Park

Thalia Holmes

Away from the crowds, cameras and politicking at FNB Stadium, mourners at Ellis Park braved the wind and rain in a "sacrifice of gratitude" to Madiba.

A small and respectful crowd gathered at Ellis Park to remember Madiba, who wore a rugby jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. (Reuters)

The 62 000-strong stadium that roared with elation when a rugby jersey-wearing Nelson Mandela congratulated the Springbok team for winning the Rugby World cup in 1995, saw a much quieter but no less poignant celebration on Tuesday.

Eighteen years after one of Mandela’s most iconic acts of reconciliation, the stadium was home to a small crowd of rememberers watching the memorial on a screen. They were those who did not attend the live memorial in Soweto’s FNB Stadium but who wanted to do something significant to mark the passing of the man who held their hearts.

"I was gonna watch it from home, but then I thought – this man sacrificed 27 years of his life for my freedom," said Jeniffer Zvikwete, who travelled to the stadium from Germiston with her 13-year-old son, Sean. "I felt that I should do more to honour him."

Zvikwete arrived on the train at Park Station just after 11am, where she had expected buses to shuttle them to the stadium. "There were about 300 people singing and dancing, but there was no bus," she said. So she walked to the park in the rain with her son.

They arrived to a crowd of 1 500 or less, scattered across the many tiers of Johannesburg’s historic sports arena. Apart from one large group of about 50 people, mourners came in small groups of friends or family, and several came alone. They huddled under towels and plastic bags to protect them from the relentless wind and the driving rain.

Quiet, reverent
The politicking and jeering that characterised the audience at the FNB stadium was absent at Ellis Park. Instead a quiet, almost reverent stoicism prevailed that seemed to reflect the spirit of the visitors.

Far from the overwhelming noise and distraction at FNB stadium, the mourners listened and occasionally nodded along to the speeches. They clapped enthusiastically at the end of each one, and cheered jovially for their favourites.

They were not there to show displeasure with current leadership or to make a political point. They were not even there to catch sight of one of the many VIPs in attendance at the memorial. They were there to honour the memory of Madiba, away from where they would receive public recognition for doing so.

"He was the only one leader who united the people in South Africa," said 28-year old Congolese Gilbert Rukosayi, who was there alone. Rukosayi took a taxi from Alberton to attend the event. This weekend he will take as many taxis as he needs to in order to attend Mandela’s burial service in the remote village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

"I remember in 1989 or 1990 I was in a train in South Africa," said Christinah Ngoy, who was watching with her sister, niece and nephew. "You couldn’t get into first class or second class. If you went there a white man would come out and say, 'kom hierso [come here], kom hierso'."

But now, "there’s a difference, a total difference," said Ngoy. "Now you can take any bus and live anywhere you want. Nelson Mandela represents the change."

'Mandela pilgrimage'
Bertus Louw, a farmer from the North West Province, woke up at 6am to drive through to Johannesburg with two teenage family friends, aged 13 and 15. They plan to spend the Wednesday after the memorial in Johannesburg, visiting Mandela’s family home in Houghton, going to the Apartheid museum and watching the recently-released A Long Walk to Freedom before heading back.

"It’s almost like a bit of a Mandela pilgrimage," said Louw.

Shop stewards from TFM Industries, a manufacturing company in Olifantsfontein, were driven to the stadium by their boss. "We had to grab any chance we can get to come and salute the old man," said Theodas Khumalo, one of the stewards.

"Coming here alone is a sign of gratitude. It means you took the time to say goodbye."

Nineteen-year-old Thabang Ledwaba echoed Khumalo’s words. "I’m a born-free, and there won’t be another day like today," she said. She and her cousin Thercasia Tsebe (12) walked to the stadium from Hillbrow. "I’m here today to show my gratitude."

The Makola family, three children aged nine, 14 and 16 originally from Limpopo, waited outside the gates from 7am before being allowed into the stadium at 9am. They huddled under towels to keep warm, and waited for the proceedings to start after noon.

But for many, the act of braving the wind and rain in an empty stadium that lacked the atmosphere and even the spectrum of food and drinks on sale at FNB was an important one.

"I think it was worth it for me," said Zvikwete, who spent her teenage years in exile and met Madiba in 1994 at the funeral of her grandfather, former ANC treasurer general Thomas Titus Nkobi.

"I do feel like I made my own personal sacrifice to thank him."   

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