Paying tribute to Mandela: South Africa's long-planned mega event

Next week will be packed with memorials and engagements involving hundreds of thousands of people in multiple locales. Mandela will be buried Dec. 15.  

Yves Herman/Reuters
Mourners gather to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela in his hometown of Soweto, South Africa.

The passing of Nelson Mandela, the beloved father-figure of the Rainbow Nation, now brings one of the country’s biggest ever staged events – at least 10 days of tributes and engagements involving the participation of hundreds of thousands.                        

South Africa does have experience with large-scale organizing, like the World Cup for soccer in 2010 and a recent UN climate change summit. But the farewell to Mr. Mandela is planned as an event like no other.

Late next week, the body of the former dissident, president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner will lie in state for three days at  the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria. Each day, there will be a funeral cortege from the mortuary to the Union Buildings to allow the public to line the route to pay their respects. 

Then the scene will shift 450 miles away to the tiny village of Qunu where “Tata” or father, as Mandela is known, was born. The Nobel Prize winner is said to have requested to be buried on a hillside within the Mandela family compound overlooking the green fields where he tended cattle and played as a boy. The burial will take place Sunday, Dec. 15.

Heads of state, dignitaries, and the famous are flying in over the coming days. President Barack Obama, the pope, the Queen of England, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the Dalai Lama, and former US President Bill Clinton will mix it up with artists, actors, and top shelf celebrities, among whom Mandela had many friends.

Some of those expected include U2 frontman Bono, singer Annie Lennox, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and supermodel Naomi Campbell. 

In announcing Mandela's passing,  Zuma also announced a period of national mourning: Condolence books will be opened at all South Africa’s foreign embassies as well as at his former home in Soweto, which is now a popular museum.

A special sitting of parliament will be held Monday in Cape Town, South Africa’s legislative capital.

On Tuesday, a “ceremony of remembrance” is slated for the Soweto soccer stadium that held the World Cup finals. The stadium is Africa’s largest, with a capacity of 95,000. In July 2010 the stadium was the site of Mandela’s last public appearance. He was driven onto the football pitch in a golf cart for the cup’s closing ceremony. Mandela was accompanied by his wife, Graca, and appeared resplendent in a bear-skin hat.

Now the stadium will be packed with people eager to play their part in celebrating Mandela’s life. In typical African fashion, singing and dancing will play a key role in the event, and Archbishop-emeritus Desmond Tutu, a long-time friend of Mandela, is expected to host. The proceedings will appear on big screens put up in Soweto, Pretoria, and Cape Town.

After Mandela's body lies in state in Pretoria on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, events will move to Qunu, where the funeral cortege will be met by Zuma and a full military contingent who will accompany it on a 15-mile procession along a road lined with people, to its final resting place at his home.

The burial of Mandela will be in accordance with the traditions of his Xhosa tribal roots and it has been described as a private, family event – with a handful of celebrities and dignitaries closest to him thought likely to be invited.

Xhosa tradition usually includes the slaughter of a cow or sheep, periods of prayer, singing, and silence, and the possessions of the loved one placed inside their grave. 

As a lover of good food, whose personal cook is a celebrity in her own right in South Africa, Mandela is likely to have stipulated that a final feast be held in his honor.

No one knows for sure what will come after the official ceremonies to bid farewell to Nelson Mandela are over.

There could be some kind of popular backlash against the African National Congress, the party that Mandela once led.

Although it has made gains in social welfare, policing, housing, and healthcare, the ANC  is widely seen as having failed to redress the gaping inequalities which keep many of its countrymen languishing in poverty.

Many people here still vote for the ANC because it is Mandela’s party, and due to a feeling of loyalty for the freedom he brought.

But there is a belief that Mandela’s passing could mark the breaking of that bond.

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