National

Small towns cherish Madiba's glow

Victoria John

Around the country, in more than 300 towns and villages in SA, people are saying their goodbyes to former president Nelson Mandela.

Parting words: The condolence book in Warrenton. (Madelene Cronjé)

Not everyone could go to Houghton, Soweto or Pretoria, or to the official events to pay their final respects to Madiba. But all around the country, in more than 300 towns and villages "where there's nothing to do but to know people", they are saying their goodbyes to the beloved man. 

Warrenton, Northern Cape
"He came to the small places," Patience Tshabile (38) says quietly.

You mean he came to Warrenton, with its one main street? The "no jobs, lots of dust, nothing happening" small town? Nelson Mandela came here?

"Ya, he did … because freedom was for everyone, not just the people living in the big cities but also ones like me who live here in places where people like you, the newspapers, never come," she said.

The former president laid a brick in a section of the township here. The town called that section Rolihlahla after Madiba.

Someone goes to phone the principal of the Rolihlahla Primary School. It has photographs somewhere of Mandela's visit – photographs that probably no one outside Warrenton has ever seen.

Tshabile says she has been living here for 28 years. Her father died a few years ago and she had the same feeling when she heard about Madiba's death.

She is the receptionist at the municipal offices and she tells "everyone who walks through the door to write in the condolence book for Madiba", she says.

By Tuesday, only about four pages with six entries each have been filled in in the book.

But it has only been a few days since the government distributed the hardcover books to more than 300 towns around the country. Maybe things will pick up as the word gets around.

There's a bustle in the reception area. People stop what they're doing to find out why the Mail & Guardian is here.

Outside the office, a restaurant owner is ranting about the E coli bacterium in the water. That's why she's here. To talk to the municipal manager about it – and the potholes.

"Mandela didn't mean anything to me," she says. "I mean, he was a wonderful person but people put him on a pedestal, and for what? Because he stood up for something he believed in? The AWB [the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging] also stood up for what they believed in."

But he brought freedom for everyone, not just some groups.

"I don't see freedom. I see a mess."

That lady's angry, I say, back in the office.

"She's always angry," someone replies.

Tshabile says that, when she was in primary school in the late 1980s, she remembers policemen "pulling us out of school … during the protests … and firing rubber bullets".

But everything changed when Mandela came to power, she says.

"Blacks got opportunities, free education; we were allowed to live in the town."

She tells me to write in my notebook that Mandela was like "Jesus Christ's brother".

Many, but not all, of Warrenton's residents share Tshabile's veneration of the man.

Another restaurant owner says that, when she heard the news of his death, "it wasn't that sad. He didn't have an effect on my life …"

Also, with this whole memorial thing, she says, some people have been asking where God is in all of this.

"They say Mandela is the father of the nation and all that, but God is actually the father of the nation."

Bloemhof, North West
The condolence book in the former mining town of Bloemhof is down a passage in the dorp's police station.

Lying on a brown tablecloth, next to a dirty candle with an HIV and Aids sticker on it, it has been here only for a day but 13 pages of the book have already been signed.

Sharon Keaoleboga (32), the station's spokesperson, has already written in it.

She was dressing for work while watching television when she heard of Mandela's death. "Yo-o-oh! I was very sorry. I had pain internally."

She went to school outside Pam­pierstad, an even smaller town nearby.

"Every Friday we would sing and dance and protest … We wanted Mandela for president. We didn't rest."

They got their wish and in 1994 Mandela became the first black, democratically elected president of South Africa.

Soon after that he visited Pampierstad. "I saw him from a distance … I remember thinking how good he was with the children."

Keaoleboga says Mandela "made us one nation; he made us proud; he wanted to reach all of us".

That's why he visited Pampierstad? "Exactly! Everyone knows Mandela, even the children today."

Across Prince Street, on the corner of Voortrekker Road, sit two young people around the age of 30. Didimetse Setsetse perches on an upturned crate next to Oscar Thubana, who is selling rusted metal home ornaments.

Setsetse is an unemployed single mother of two. Jobs in the area are scarce but at least there are social grants for her children, something that Mandela's administration introduced, she says.

Thubana says that today, the day of Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg, "sales are bad – people are sad".

He calls over his friend who sells sunglasses and cellphone chargers. The friend doesn't want his name to be seen in a newspaper, mainly because he is from Zimbabwe. He struggles, but he's happy to be in South Africa, he says.

"Mandela wasn't just the father of South Africa but the father of Africa. He made it okay for people like me to come to South Africa."

He hangs his sunglasses in rows around his hips like ammunition, but his wares aren't hitting their targets today.

Unlike Thubana, he doesn't think that today's slow business has anything to do with Mandela.

"You don't sell sunglasses when the sun doesn't shine," he says.

Five teenage boys, all around the age of 16, sell worms for money and beg for food. They are so high on drugs they can't stand still long enough to hear why we are here. But pose for a photograph? That they will do.

Setsetse says they don't go to school; they just stay in town and smoke weed.

"They are not living the life Mandela would have wanted for them," she says.

I ask one of the boys if he knows that Mandela has died.

He looks at me with eyes half open and walks away: "Mandela-a-ah … ANC!"

Hertzogville, Free State
Hertzogville was named after JBM Hertzog, who became prime minister of the Union of South Africa six years after Nelson Mandela's birth in 1918. A staunch nationalist, Hertzog fought for Afrikaner rights throughout his tenure that ended in 1939.

The farming town lies nearly at the centre of South Africa, but only in the literal sense of the word.

The condolence book rests on a counter in the Munisipale Kantore (municipal offices), as it is signposted, above a poster of a smiling Mandela.

The odd bakkie drives past on the road outside but the loudest sound is the shrieking of a woman, hailing anyone she can see outside to come and write in the book.

A queue develops. In it is a woman wearing an ANC T-shirt, a man with a Zion Christian Church badge and another woman with a Polo handbag and straightened blonde hair.

The others in the queue put their car keys, electricity bills, workers' gloves or sunglasses down on the counter next to the book so they can write variations of "Lala ngo xolo, Tata" (Rest in peace, father).

Tebogo Gadwelwe (38) was 19 in 1994, so he could vote in South Africa's first democratic election. He works at the nearby grain silos.

He says black people used to be the ones "cleaning up the grain on the floor around the silos but, after Mandela became president, we

had the chance to learn about the grain".

"We still have challenges but Mandela brought us together: black, white, Indian, Chinese."

There is seemingly no limit to the esteem Mandela can be held in by many of the people we speak to. They give him saint status, hero worship. He could do no wrong.

Gadwelwe says that, even out here where there is "nothing to do but know people", you can feel Mandela's presence.

In his message in the book, he thanks Mandela for his leadership and asks him to rest easy.

The message from TF Obotseng under Gadwelwe's is similar, as it must be to all the other messages in all the other condolence books in towns big and small.

"Lala ngo xolo, our father. Laying your life down for the nation, you have done more than enough."


Topics In This Section

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus