Lenasia’s annual Hare Krishna Festival of the Chariot had been planned for six months. The volunteers setting it up had everything ready — hundreds of chairs, big tents, and performers. Then the world heard that Madiba had died.
They had a crisis — do you cancel the whole celebration in respect to Madiba? They consulted with local ANC branches in the community, south of Johannesburg. Their response was unanimous — go ahead and celebrate the statesman’s life.
"In South Africa we celebrate, so that is what we did," said Caitanya dasa, an organiser of the event. "Mandela was a very open person when it came to how he felt, and he was honest with people. He wanted them to really live and celebrate life. It was clear to us that this is how we should honour him."
Devotees gather at the Hare Krishna Festival of the Chariot in Lenasia on Saturday night. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)
The celebration is the main public ceremony for the church during the year. A large procession pulls a chariot around the streets of Lenasia, taking the religion to people. The chariot body, trucked from Durban after the Gauteng one wore out after a decade of work, stands nearly three metres high, with a giant tent on top of it. Drivers, one to each of the two axles, control the cart-wheels.
A colourful and widely diverse group of people, some joining in from their houses as the parade passes, pull two thick ropes. This brings the chariot along at walking speed, although on this occasion the tempo of the music was occasionally speeded up to quicken the ambling pace.
Varesh Ajmal, a local joining in for one block of the trip, said the timing was good. "We need to show our appreciation for all that Mandela did for us. He meant that we could associate with anybody that we want to."
The eventual destination was Lenasia’s cricket pitch, where a central stage was flanked by tents, each one containing a different way to focus and worship. The stage, bathed in incense and smoke, was always busy with constant performances. Each one was a tribute to Madiba.
"He [Madiba] knew the Bhagavad Gita, I think he really associated with the principles that guide us," said Namacarya das. An activist in Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal during the latter days of apartheid, he was introduced to Madiba when he visited the area shortly after his release from prison.
Celebrations at the Hare Krishna Festival of the Chariot in Lenasia on Saturday night. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)
"I was introduced to Mr Mandela as an activist, and he shook my hand and said 'thank you for fighting with me'. He was an incredible person, with his humility. He never thought he was better than anyone else," he said.
Over the course of the evening’s festivities people shared their stories of Madiba, and the anecdotes that they had heard on the radio and television. All of them focused on his humbleness.
"He was a caring man, a spiritual leader," said Kesava Krishna dasa. "He accepted his shortcomings." This is why people were so willing to follow Madiba, because they immediately respected him and saw his humanity, he said.
Mandela had an intimate knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita thanks to his time in prison. During his one visit to a temple he joined in conversation with its Swami, who quoted excerpts from the religion’s founding text. Mandela finished his quotes, and challenged him to try find a part he did not know.
Upon being asked, Mandela said that the apartheid government had tried to break the prisoners on Robben Island by giving them mindless labour and creating a monotonous routine. An Indian lawyer among the prisoners taught them verses of the text, and the group would quote and discuss it at length while they were working.
With music always in the background, and long queues for the free food, the small tent with candles for Madiba had a constant stream of people going through it. A large book also saw constant activity with people sharing their thoughts on the man. Many of these mentioned how people were taking inspiration from the way South Africa's first black president lived by his principles.
Standing outside the light cast by the tents, Willem van Staden said he is not religiously inclined but came to celebrate Madiba. "My family wanted to do something special so we could remember Mr Mandela and we didn’t really know where to go."
He said it was a very special celebration of a life spent in service to South Africa. "You come here and you see what he meant to people. Everyone loved him and now everyone is talking about how they can live their lives better in his memory. Even with his death he has brought the best out of our nation."