South Africa gives thanks for Mandela

They celebrated for the man they loved, writes Peter Murtagh in Soweto

 African National Congress  party members hold a prayer service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Standard Bank arena in central Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday.   Photograph: TJ Lemon/EPA

African National Congress party members hold a prayer service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Standard Bank arena in central Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday. Photograph: TJ Lemon/EPA

Mon, Dec 9, 2013, 01:00

Churches across South Africa were filled yesterday as people prayed and gave thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela.

In what used to be his own family church, the Orlando West Methodist Church, a modest tin-roofed building on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets, a few doors up the hill from the former Mandela family home in Soweto, they sang and danced and they clapped and cheered in a celebration that was effervescent and bursting with a wild and joyous exuberance.

They celebrated for the man they loved, one of their own who achieved more than their wildest dreams ever imagined. They smiled and danced for their late neighbour Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – their Tata, their Madiba.

This was no occasion of mourning – far from it. It was an explosive outburst of joy and faith and happiness – a service of remembrance that had structure, but which dissolved regularly into shapeless, meandering happiness only to resume form, after an outburst of song and dance, for more prayers and reading from the scriptures. There were no dignitaries present; this was just Mandela family neighbours, the ordinary people who shared time with them in Soweto. Sam Swane, a barrel-chested elderly man, was in the front row.

Beside him was Florence Ntaeeni, a woman of a similar age who wore a jet-black bonnet and a black gown that had a purple front with doves of peace on each lapel.

Led the congregation
Together, Sam and Florence led the congregation of about 100 – Sam’s tenor voice launching every hymn and also a flawless, lengthy Te deum; Florence held a small leather-covered cushion in one hand and, her other hand palm open, pounded out a beat.

Behind them and when the mood took her – Alina Mphahlele would tap out a solitary note on a circular metal ring. Such was the extent of instrumentation. And yet, a full concert orchestra would not have come anywhere near matching the hair-tingling melodic harmony of the congregation.

They stood, they swayed, and they spilled into the aisles as they danced, but it was their voices, their collective voice, that rolled back and forth like a great musical wave sweeping everything and every emotion up in its arms. There were readings from Isaiah, Revelations, Luke and Romans. There were few words spoken, but those that were by the Rev Sello Pelesane, were all about love. “We pray that we may love one and other. We pray for Nelson Mandela.”

The princes, presidents and pop stars will crowd other churches and stadiums to say their farewells this week. But none of those goodbyes will be as poignant or moving as yesterday’s magical gathering in the Mandela family Methodist church just up the hill from their old home.

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