Poor in Mandela’s hometown bid a final farewell

Even as South Africa’s struggles continue, those from Mandela’s homeland revere the anti-apartheid icon

QUNU, South Africa — From an outside perspective, the people of this rural town have reasons to be unsatisfied. They struggle with unemployment and poverty. They lack paved roads, and flush toilets are a luxury.

Some of them may have resented that they and other ordinary South Africans were excluded from attending the funeral that has been the focus of life here for days, even though dignitaries were bused in. Oprah Winfrey and her companion, Stedman Graham, for instance, received choice positions near the grave site.

But despite all this, little could dampen the love that residents of Qunu and their neighbors feel for former President Nelson Mandela.

The narrow, dirt path into Qunu — pronounced with a loud click on the first syllable — is lined with neat, simple houses behind chain fences, mud-brick structures painted green, brown and pink.

Goats and cattle grazed alongside the path while chickens ran underfoot as residents walked in groups of twos and threes to a nearby tent that had been set up for the official viewing — by television — of Mandela’s funeral.

Nohonest Xidlele washed her children’s clothes in front of her house before she prepared to walk to the viewing. For Xidlele, it would be the final day of a 10-day struggle to come to terms with Mandela’s death.

“I was sad at first, but as time went on and I thought about all the things he had done for us, I was able to let go,” she said.

What things? “Electricity, water and free education for my children.”

Click here for Al Jazeera's coverage of Nelson Mandela's legacy.

Xidlele said she was also grateful her children received free meals at school, guaranteeing that no matter how things were at home, her children would not go hungry during the school year.

She also receives a monthly child grant of about 250 rand per child, roughly $25. Although the grant ensures that she can feed her family, it is not enough for anything else. And while her children receive free basic education, she does not know how she will pay for college without more money.

Nearby in the city of Mthatha, this is a problem Khanyisele Makholwane faces as well. She is studying to be a teacher. She was not able to get a scholarship and has had to rely on loans, which cover her fees and little else. Makholwane sits on her broken mattress in a small room with a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and thanks Mandela for where she is today.

“He brought us freedom,” she said. “The reason we’re free today is because of him.”

Though Makholwane had high praise for Mandela, she is disappointed in the current leaders of the ruling African National Congress and blamed them for her lack of a scholarship.

“Mandela gave up his life in jail so we could have freedom, but leaders now are concerned with themselves and corruption,” she said.

Makholwane lives in Payne, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mthatha. Residents rely on outhouses, and although they have electricity and water, these services are often interrupted, sometimes for days.

Qunu resident Siphelele Bambiso, 18, said that while he was content to live the rest of his life in the town where he grew up, playing soccer with his friends, he was worried about the future.

He has finished high school and is self-employed in his family’s business, making mud blocks by hand.

The work is irregular and not very lucrative. The family earns only about $70 for 1,000 blocks. It takes three people three days to fill that order, meaning Bambiso earns only about $11 a day — when he can get the work.

In his house, an old television with poor reception shows the funeral procession, with dignitaries making their way solemnly into the funeral venue past soldiers in dress uniform.

“It troubles me because I don’t have money,” Bambiso said. “I feel good that somebody like Madiba could be from the same place as me.”

Since the end of apartheid, the government has struggled to lower the country’s high unemployment and continue to provide services to a growing population, with so many who have had to make do with little.

Mthatha is no different, with the municipality straining to provide houses, policing, water, electricity and basic infrastructure for its residents.

Before Mandela’s funeral, the city hurried to give itself a makeover. On Saturday morning, just hours ahead of the motorcade delivering the former president’s body to the funeral site, municipal employees worked quickly to paint long-faded curbs and crosswalks on the very street named after Mandela.

The previous night, working into the early hours of the morning, street sweepers made their way down the street despite a steady drizzle of rain.

“I’ve never seen Mthatha so clean,” said lifelong resident Erica Goosen to her co-worker Gillian McGuire. “I could never believe Mthatha could be that clean.”

“Tuesday I’ll be sweeping pavements again,” chimed in McGuire. “It’s irritating because it’s something they could do every day.”

They said Mthatha’s traffic lights were all working for the first time in recent memory and complained about blackouts.

“I guess that won’t happen today,” said McGuire.

While the two wish services could be better in Mthatha, they had only praise for Mandela and the guidance he provided for South Africa as it transitioned to democracy.

During apartheid, Mthatha was the capital of Transkei, a designated homeland for black Africans. At the time there were schools only for black and white children.

As a 10-year-old, Goosen — who is racially mixed — had to travel several hours by train to a boarding school for children like her 220 miles away. Today her children can live at home and attend local schools.

“We are people now because of him,” she said.

The funeral ended with a 21-gun salute as helicopters and fighter jets did flybys overhead.

About 35 miles away in Mveso, the hilly village where Mandela was born, the villagers finished watching the funeral on a large screen and began to tuck into food prepared for the occasion.

Diniso Mzikayise said that while some may have wanted to attend the funeral in person, he understood that Mandela was a “big man.”

“We did wish to go because he was ours as well, something you feel inside. But we couldn’t. But at least we could watch it on TV together,” he said.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter