First came boys and girls in pyjamas. A touch that former South African president Nelson Mandela, who spent long years in prison missing the sound of children, would have loved.
Then they came, in ever greater numbers, men and women, black and white, waving lit candles and South African national flags and of course cameraphones, gathering outside Mandela’s house in Houghton, Johannesburg, yesterday because they had to be there.
No matter that it had long gone midnight, a time this affluent, tree-lined suburb is usually silent and only the most daring pedestrian ventures forth.
On this night, people came from far and wide and the air filled with chatter, chants and songs including the national anthem and a half-mournful, half-joyous rendition of “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, ha hona ya tshwanang le yena” (“There is no one and never will be anyone who compares to him”).
A group toyi-toyi-d in the street clapping and singing their hearts out. Someone shouted: “Long live Nelson Mandela, long live!”
South African police struggled, a little gentler than usual, to keep people confined behind tape and allow their flashing light vehicles through. TV satellite vans and cameramen added to the melee. A helicopter clattered overhead.
Among the relaxed multiracial throng was Vusi Moyo, 31, a waiter.
“I was at home drinking beer and I saw on TV that Nelson Mandela had died,” he said. “I felt my heart. Why did Mandela die so soon? We still need these men to lead us.”
“These will be difficult days for South Africans. They’re singing the songs they sang when he was in jail because they want to remember him. It’s a very sad day for us,” Moyo said.
Rebecca Mmatli, a 57-year-old in her domestic worker’s uniform, had been woken to be told the news and she, too, had to be here. She had delivered flowers to Mandela’s house before.
She was arm in arm with a white friend, Vivian Goldwajg, 49, who said: “It’s history in the making. We’ve lost an icon who changed the course of the country. It’s incredible sadness, but we’re grateful for the change that took place.”
Residents of Soweto, the bedrock of black resistance against apartheid rule, yesterday sang and danced as they paid their respects to Mandela outside his former home.
A small crowd of admirers, some dressed in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s yellow T-shirts, braved an unseasonal chilly summer morning to lay flowers outside Mandela’s former residence, which is now a museum and a popular tourist attraction.
At times the mourners spontaneously burst into song, cheering and dancing as music blared from a nearby car stereo in a celebration of the revered statesman’s life.
“A life well lived,” said 38-year-old doctor Mahlodi Tau, remembering her hero. “He has finished the race and he fought a good fight.
Additional reporting by AFP