Grief through song and dance: The mourners of Mandela gather in Soweto

Hundreds assemble in famous township to pay tribute to the man they knew as 'Tata,' the father of modern South Africa

SOWETO, South Africa — There is a saying in Soweto that when it rains, the old people will pass and something momentous will happen. And it did indeed rain the week before the man many call "Tata,'' or father, closed his eyes for the final time.

But late on Friday, the day after the news of Nelson Mandela's death was announced, the gray skies held back their rain, and the people who loved him came here, to this township at the heart of the liberation movement, to the brick house on Vilakazi Street where Mandela had lived as a young lawyer and firebrand activist.

They came to mourn in the best way they knew how: singing, dancing, cellphones snapping pictures. That people might sing and dance to show respect for the dead may seem incongruous, but it had a long a history during the struggle against apartheid.

Severe restrictions had been placed on political activity and gatherings, and, as such, the funerals of slain political activists became de facto rallies, with comrades (a term referring to activists who joined the struggle against apartheid) moving in a dance-marching hybrid called toyi-toyi.

On Friday, members of the African National Congress toyi-toyi'd up and down Vilakazi Street, singing songs like “Mandela Bekakhona Emzabalezweni” (Mandela Was There During the Struggle).

Occasionally, someone would begin the call and response so well known from the struggle, and still used today at ANC rallies.

“Amandla!” (Power!)

“Awethu!” (Ours!)

The man and the movement

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Local ANC leader Desmond Mangamye, dressed in a black, gold and green ANC tracksuit and white leather loafers, said the party would not let the world forget the movement that raised Mandela.

“People want to separate him from the movement, but you can't,” said Mangamye. “It was the movement that made him an icon.”

While the ANC was the loudest and largest contingent, the crowd included preschoolers singing “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) and what appeared to be a contingent of white-collar employees from Lonmin — the mining company where 34 workers were killed by police last year during a strike. They wore soccer jerseys that read “Lonmin United.” “No comment,” one said when asked if they were the company soccer team.

It's been said to the point of cliche that Mandela brought people together, but this achievement is appreciated when it's understood how South Africa was once divided — and still is in many ways.

Informal vendor Charles Zulu keeps a small stand selling handicrafts and artwork on Vilakazi Street. His normal mode of dress is traditional, with kudu-skin boots, bracelets and headbands.

As a teenager, Zulu was a member of the youth wing of the Pan-African Congress, an organization that believed firmly in “Africa for Africans” and split off from the ANC in the late 1950s as the latter embraced nonracialism.

“We were too radical because they said a white person must go back to Europe,” Zulu recalled. “We must take the land and drive the whites out of South Africa.”

But his mind was changed when Mandela visited his school in 1991.

“When we were shaking hands, I felt something,” said Zulu.

“When Mandela came out he said, 'You must forgive and forget. We must come together.' That's why I loved him.”

It's complicated

But the feelings about Mandela and reconciliation are more complicated than that. Many feel that while the nation was able to transition peacefully, it was done at the cost of economic justice, with too much wealth and land kept in the hands of white elites.

A pair of Rastafarian T-shirt vendors believe Mandela protected the economic privileges of whites while selling out the black majority.

“There's no praise I could give him,” said Mthandeni Nxumalo. “He sold us to the white system. The ones we were fighting against. He gave us to them.”

Nxumalo and his partner did have one reason to be happy with Mandela. Several of their T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the former president were selling fast.

Not so lucky was a man next to them hawking bags reading only “Soweto.” He sat on the curb glumly as people walked past him.

Also doing a brisk business were soft drink vendors carrying around their wares in cardboard boxes, especially as the day got warmer and warmer, with the gray skies giving no indication of rain.

The diversity of the crowd was also misleading. While some of the visitors were white, most of them arrived on Vilakazi Street as part of a corporate function — planned months ago and unrelated to Mandela.

Soweto is still perceived by many as a dangerous township, though Vilakazi Street, with its museums and restaurants, is now notoriously bourgeois.

Thunder from the veld

And while a few hundred people came here, some had anticipated even larger crowds for the man who was so loved.

“I was expecting more than this,” said Soweto resident Justice Mabirimisa.

Mandela was considered by many in South Africa and around the world to be its last living icon, a secular saint. It was a moment for which one might expect the ground to shake.

“I was driving around, and it's just a normal day.” Mabirimisa said.

Even the drama of the toyi-toyi, as powerful as it is in observance of Mandela's death, is a common sight in modern South Africa and part of the country's frequent protests and labor strikes.

While there have been tears and grief on the leader's passing, with many news anchors losing their composure on air, South Africans have had months to come to terms with the mortality of the one so many call Tata.

The day of mourning continued in Soweto. Some tears were shed, songs were sung and many T-shirts and soft drinks were sold.

Finally, in the late afternoon, the bone-shaking claps of thunder from the area's infamous veld storm were heard over Johannesburg.

It sounded as if the sky were torn open. Later, it finally began to rain.

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