‘We are no longer a country that is divided and isolated’

Peter Murtagh reports from Pretoria on one man’s pilgrimage for Nelson Mandela

A handout photograph made available by the South African government showing widow of the late former South African President Nelson Mandela,  Graca Machel (right) paying her last respects to late former president Nelson Mandela as he  lies in state at the newly renamed Nelson Mandela Amphitheatre at  Union buildings in Pretoria.

A handout photograph made available by the South African government showing widow of the late former South African President Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel (right) paying her last respects to late former president Nelson Mandela as he lies in state at the newly renamed Nelson Mandela Amphitheatre at Union buildings in Pretoria.

Wed, Dec 11, 2013, 12:52

The man behind me on the bus tapped me on the shoulder. 

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you know the way to Union Buildings; are you going there?”

Travelling through central Pretoria on public transport, I had even less of a clue where I was than he, but we struck up a conversation and decided to blunder our way together.

When someone like Nelson Mandela comes along and leaves in their wake a nation transformed utterly, its people deeply inspired, and a world left awestruck, besotted and uplifted, it is sometimes only possible to understand why by listening to one man’s story.

My bus pal was Desmond Saula and his is a sort of everyman’s story in South Africa; its significance is it its ordinariness, as it were.

Desmond is 31 years old and comes from Cape Town. When Mandela died, he decided he had to become part of what he knew would ensue. And so the day after the death was announced, Desmond left his home in the far south west of South Africa and travelled to Johannesburg. From there, he went the relatively short distance yesterday to Pretoria and today, he will begin to try to get to Qunu, about another 900 kilometres away in the south east, where Mandela will be buried. 

For Desmond, this is a pilgrimage, his response to an urge he embraces with joy and purpose, an urge simply to be there, be part of it all, and to make his contribution by so doing.

Desmond is a first year law student and part-time photographer. He doesn’t carry a camera right now however because this is personal, not work.

Desmond’s grandparents came from the Eastern Cape. His grandmother was at home while Grandfather worked on the railways, laying tracks, doing hard labour. The couple moved to Deaar, a small town in the northern Cape that used to be a major railhead in South Africa.

Desmond’s father died young and so he was raised as an only child by his mother but with grandparents very much part of his life as well. His earliest memories of Mandela are those of a child.

“When I was growing up, my grandmother, whenever we mentioned the name Mandela, she wouldn’t say his name. She said ‘No! You can’t say that; you are going to be arrested’. This was the system then. According to the system then, Mandela was a terrorist. She was just trying to protect us. We were so young. . .”

The other sort of memory Desmond has is of children playing, being naughty scratching in the dust the spear logo of Umkhonto We Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation military wing of the African National Congress). Desmond was still a child when Mandela was released from prison. “I cannot say I took part in toi toi [protests] but I have these childish memories.”

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