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December 6, 2013

South Africans sing, dance, cry for Nelson Mandela

Funeral plans finalized for former leader

JOHANNESBURG — Themba Radebe spun slowly in a circle.

First he pointed his cellphone camera at a group of children chanting Nelson Mandela’s name as they waved posters of the anti-apartheid champion. Then pivoting to his right, Radebe aimed his camera at a swaying group of adults who sang in Zulu while rocking and clapping.

A day after Mandela’s death at 95, South Africans of all colors erupted in song, dance and tears Friday in emotional celebrations of the life of the man who bridged this country’s black-white divide and helped avert a race war.

“I don’t think Mr. Mandela belonged to black people,” said Alex Freilingsdorf, a Toyota executive at a Soweto dealership. “He belonged to South Africa.”

Freilingsdorf and other white South Africans mingled among the hundreds of blacks gathered outside a home where Mandela lived as a young lawyer in the rough and tumble Soweto township.

The mood was simultaneously celebratory and somber at the impromptu street festival where Radebe filmed scenes to share with his family.

“I’m sorry, I’m too emotional. The tears flow too easily,” said the balding 60-year-old,  his eyes sparkling with tears as he reflected on how South Africa’s race relations have improved — “not perfect, but much better” — compared with his childhood in the black township.

“This is a celebration of the death, because we knew he was an old man,” Radebe said. “He brought a lot of changes to our community, because I grew up in apartheid. It was a very bad situation.”

At a service in Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate like Mandela and himself a monumental figure in the struggle against apartheid, called on South Africa’s 51 million people to embrace the values of unity and democracy that Mandela embodied.

“God, thank you for the gift of Madiba,” Tutu said, using Mandela’s clan name.

“All of us here in many ways amazed the world, a world that was expecting us to be devastated by a racial conflagration,” Tutu said as he recalled how Mandela helped unite South Africa as it dismantled the cruel system of white minority rule, and prepared for all-race elections in 1994.

In those elections, Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, became South Africa’s first black president.  

President Jacob Zuma announced a schedule of ceremonies expected to draw huge numbers of world dignitaries and ordinary mourners.

Mandela’s body is to lie in state from Wednesday through Friday after a memorial service at the same Johannesburg stadium where he made his last public appearance in 2010 at the closing ceremony of the soccer World Cup. He is to be buried in his rural childhood village of Qunu on Dec. 15, after a state funeral.

“We call upon all our people to gather in halls, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and in their homes for prayer services and meditation, reflecting on the life of Madiba and his contribution to our country and the world,” Zuma said.

The White House said President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama would visit South Africa next week to participate in memorial events, though no precise dates were given.

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