In death, Johannesburg looks full of life. Watching the news of Nelson Mandela’s death unfold on television cameras fixed on the crowds outside of the celebrated leader’s house, I take notice to the lush green streets in full bloom during the South African summer.
Only five months ago, on Mandela’s 95th birthday, I stood in front of Mandela’s home in a quaint Johannesburg suburb. It was July 18, the middle of winter, and supporters from around the world had made the pilgrimage to hang signs and letters of support on the bare trees.
One of them read: “I hope you have a nice party. And I also hope you feel better soon.” The card was signed, with love, from Maxine Johnsten, age 5.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced the death of Mandela, the former political prisoner-turned-president, on Dec. 6. Mandela’s life had taken him from his tribal homeland on the Eastern Cape, where cattle farming remains one of the largest trades and where Mandela was close to royalty, to Africa’s most economically powerful city, where he led the fight against Apartheid that eventually led to his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison.
In the five weeks I spent in South Africa this summer along with 17 members of Temple’s Study Away program in Johannesburg, I saw many signs like 5-year-old Maxine’s. They were written on billboards, spray-painted along walls. I received some signs of love verbally from the many South Africans who spoke of their former leader not as a politician or a freedom fighter, but as the savior of a country torn apart for decades by hate.
On a construction pillar inside the Sandton Mall, situated in a wealthy, mostly white suburb of Johannesburg, many had come to scribble “Get Well” messages at a time when many believed his death was imminent.
One of them read: “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be on a date with a white girl right now.”
In Cape Town, a cab driver named Jeff took us on a tour of the city and the surrounding Cape Peninsula. On the top of one hill overlooking the harbor, he stopped the cab and we got out.
“There is something you must know about Mandela and our country,” he said. “Regardless of his politics, he didn’t seek punishment, he brought white and black together. When he was done, he stepped down. That does not happen in Africa.”
Before I left Cape Town, I made the trip to Robben Island, a windswept and battered patch of scrub brush and seabirds. There, down the road from Mandela’s cell, his mat rolled neatly in the corner, and the lime quarry where he spent years chipping away at the faded yellow rock and discussed the future of his country, lay the still-inhabited houses of the islands keepers: former prisoners and guards now living together, free.
The memories that stay with me from my trip to South Africa range from the wild safaris in Kruger National Park to the beautiful beaches of Durban. But more so than anything, I will always remember the human moments that – for however brief a time – brought me close to one of the world’s greatest leaders.
I will remember painting a school with members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. As we stood there, covered in paint, our host broke out it in song.
“Nelson Mandela!” we sang. “There is no one who looks like you!”
John Moritz can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JCMoritzTU.