'Madiba's death only comes once'

Kwanele Sosibo

Amid drizzle, a deluge of foreign media, and outpourings of grief, the sleepy village of Qunu prepares for the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

Preparations took place for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

By Sunday afternoon, three days after the announcement of former president Nelson Mandela's death, his Qunu home – some 30km from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape – was already the site of pilgrimage and strange ritual.

Journalists, already anxiously observing the "action" from across the N2 highway, mostly kept a respectful distance from the contingent of police officers standing guard at the gate.

The house is right next to the N2. The main building is a palatial, two-tone, double-storey building with a tiled roof and clay brick walls. It has first-floor balconies and is surrounded by several structures, including a house modelled after Mandela's Victor Verster prison home.

There is also a generous piece of land extending behind the house that includes the Mandela graveyard. As the highway separates it from the rest of his extended families, it is referred to as "ngaphesheya", meaning "across".

An interracial couple approached the gate, exchanged a few words with the policemen, and took some pictures of the bouquets, wreaths and messages adjacent to the entrance.

On their way back across the N2, the man, dressed casually in camouflage shorts and a blue T-shirt, reached into his car to grab a plastic bag, and scooped some handfuls of the earth bordering the tarred road.

Mantashe's whereabouts
On a grassy section near the entrance, Michael Notyhanga, wearing Nazarite Baptist Church robes, showed a pile of aged photographs to groups of largely uninterested police officers. The photographs, some bearing images of Mandela and President Jacob Zuma in Shembe church regalia, are his "proof" that Madiba "belonged to his church" and therefore should be buried according to its rites.

Making their way past the handful of journalists, two officers discreetly solicited cash in exchange for information on ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe's whereabouts.

Perhaps they could sense that a distraction is in order, as the only tangible action from the house at this point was the slow emergence of a giant marquee's skeleton, resembling a spider's limbs.

At a multifaith prayer service in Madiba's honour at Mthatha's OR Tambo district municipality headquarters, the T-shirts on display encapsulated the ANC's lot.

"Vote ANC", a beaming, etched Zuma head said from a yellow shirt. And, aimed more at Julius Malema than Mandela, ANC Youth League T-shirts read: "Leaders come and go but the organisation is here to stay."

Over the next few days, Mthatha quickly filled up. Every room became prized accommodation space as prices trebled. In Qunu, tour guides became "unaffordable" fixers at the beck and call of deep-pocketed foreign media agencies.

"Mandela's death only comes once," one guide said, swatting me off when I ask for a contact in the Mandela family. Even the average passerby feels exploited by the gaze of a camera lens.

Stand guard inside
Near-constant drizzle, mist and low-hanging blankets of dark clouds hang over Qunu. Access roads to the Madiba house have been blocked off for a radius of about a kilometre.Journalists, mostly local photo-graphers and foreign broadcasters frustrated by "the lack of coherent dialogue" with government agencies, have been pouring into Qunu, setting up campers as close as possible to the house or from discreet vantage points.

Two young men employed to construct the marquee, estimated to accommodate about 6?000 guests, said construction began on Sunday and was due to be completed on the eve of the funeral. Two smaller marquees flank the main structure.

The men said no cellphones are allowed at work and two shifts of about 40 people each are working on the structure, from 7am to 4.30pm and then from 4.30pm to 10pm. Lunch is served from the house.

"I'm honoured to be involved in some way in the funeral," said one, seated discreetly inside the car.

"It has been quite a while since I've been inside the house, so we're lending our services quite willingly, even though we are sad at his passing."

One of the men said he frequented the house on special occasions such as weddings and birthday parties.

He said more than 150 staff (and counting) are inside the complex, excluding several soldiers who stand guard inside the yard and around the perimeter of the vast property.

By Tuesday evening at least four military trucks were guarding the roadside area of the house and at least five police vehicles were parked in single file near the entrance.

'Madiba as a pillar of hope'
Activity had ramped up to a flurry. At least seven trucks carrying portable toilets, chairs, stage material and outside broadcast equipment queued in the rain outside a side entrance.

At the Nelson Mandela Heritage Museum in Qunu, strange outpourings of grief continued.

A Bangladeshi man, perhaps in his early 30s, asked to be escorted through the permanent exhibition by marketing manager Nokuzola Thethani.

Stopping in front of a nearly life-sized image of a just-released Mandela with his then wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the man knelt and wept.

"I am nothing; he has done so much for the world," he said.

Thethani, who has worked at the museum for 13 years, wept with him. For her, it was an epiphany, a moment of realising just what Mandela means to the world's displaced.

"There are so many people who left their homes in pain [and came to South Africa] looking to Madiba as a pillar of hope," she said at the museum.

Prayer meetings
"By giving him attention, I didn't want him to feel like Madiba is gone and they should be feeling vulnerable. Another Ethiopian guy was here as well and I just feel like they [foreigners] need reassurance and a commitment from us that now that Madiba is gone they should continue to feel safe. I think it's something South Africans should do as a service to Madiba."

Locals, too, have been coming to the museum for answers, as prayer meetings and memorial services collapse and logistical information remains scant. An Eastern Cape Tourism marquee near the museum was eventually used as a viewing area for a memorial service.

Johannesburg-based family members began arriving at the Mthatha airport on Wednesday afternoon and briefing sessions on funeral protocol will be held with them.

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