Children’s fun day shows how deeply Mandela has changed his society
Former apartheid-era township Soweto hosts rainbow nation gathering without a hint of segregation
Two boys at the Mzimhlophe gathering, which drew about 1,000 black, white and mixed race children
There was a pleasing irony yesterday morning in a place named Mzimhlophe. It related to an event that would not have happened – could not have happened – were it not for Nelson Mandela.
Mzimhlophe is a part of the sprawling urban metropolis that is Soweto, the apartheid-era township on the edge of Johannesburg that now boasts shopping malls, hotels and restaurants amid significant pockets of burgeoning middle-class domestic prosperity.
In Xhosa, the mother tongue of Mandela, Mzimhlophe means White City. But yesterday morning, there was a boisterous rainbow nation gathering that would have brought him much joy and which did not have even the tiniest hint of racial segregation.
About 1,000 children, black, white and mixed race, did what large groups of toddlers and young teens tend to do – they ran about having fun, they played games, had their faces painted, shouted, sang songs, stood waiting in line, sometimes looking a little lost, sucked their thumbs, smiled for the cameras and probably wondered what it was all about.
In one instance, a tiny wide-eyed tot named Itumeleng Madumise was solemnly interviewed on camera by CCTV of China. Yes, she said, she loved Madiba.
Determined to mark the week-long departure of their former president, the South African authorities are staging many and diverse events all over the country. In Guateng province, home to Johannesburg and Soweto, the local authority determined that yesterday in Mzimhlophe’s Orlando West Park would be a fun day for children. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund rowed in enthusiastically.
And so, from about 10am on, they poured in through the park’s gates – children from orphanages, care homes, crèches, pre-school learning centres and local schools.
There was a big tent in the middle just in case it rained. Around the edge of the park, bouncy castles emerged. A group of ponies in one corner were saddled up and a leotard-clad young man showed the delighted kids what it was all about – hopping on and off a trolling pony. The pony ride queue wasn’t long forming.
Big fellows on stilts, in harlequin-style clothing and juggling balls and skittles, held the toddlers as if spellbound. The children sat at their feet, cross-legged on the grass, looking up at strange smiley giants.
The face painters did a roaring trade. Tigers and Spider-Man loomed large. Balloon benders satisfied requests for animals in most shapes and sizes. There was, inevitably, a lot of popping.
A local bakery supplied lunch bags for everyone. And there was water and juice and T-shirts aplenty.
Sabello Shelmb, aged 11 and from Soweto, knew exactly what it was all about, why he was there.
“He fought for our freedom. That’s all that I know sir,” he told me. “I love him so much.”
Rico, a black boy aged 10, was walking around arm in arm with Triston, a white boy aged 11. They looked like best friends forever. In fact they had only just met but now maybe they are. They came from two different orphanages and when I asked about Mandela, who he was and what did he mean to them, it was Triston who answered.
“He was a good man and he’s now with Jesus. He was good because he let apartheid go away.”
Inside the tent, disco music erupted, dancing the inevitable result. And then there was storytelling, about the man from the village “who became a big man in the world”. In among the sea of small black faces, a little white girl wrapped her arms around her black pal, hugging her, protecting her.
“I am beautiful just like Nelson Mandela told me I was beautiful,” they sang.
Solly Ndweni from the department of social development wants a Nelson Mandela fun day every day from now on.
“He loved all kids,” said Ndweni. “And this here is his rainbow nation.”
And it was true. There were no black children or white children in the park. Just children; only grown-ups notice the colours and for all the grown-ups there yesterday, there’s a steely determination that never again, to the extent that it is humanly possible, will colour matter, or be a bar, in South Africa.
“As part of this send off for Madiba,” said Ndweni, “let’s have children come and play and have a happy time. And they will grow up remembering at least one happy day and Nelson Mandela’s name will be associated with it and so his name will be part of their lives.”
And they all went home with T-shirts. On the front a photo and on the back “We Love You Tata”.
And they say they do.