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1 November 2014 11:24 (South Africa)
South Africa

Cape Town: City where Mandela was imprisoned mourns

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
rebecca-mandelact-subbedm.jpg

Nelson Mandela, as many have pointed out, had a complicated relationship with Cape Town. This weekend, mourners gathered to grieve and celebrate. The City of Cape Town’s response to Mandela’s death has been swift and efficient, with a reported operating budget of R72 million set aside for the days of mourning. But particularly at events held at the city’s Grand Parade, the turnout of people has perhaps not been in the numbers expected thus far. By REBECCA DAVIS.

“While it is true that the world celebrates him, we have a special relationship with Madiba here in Cape Town,” Mayor Patricia de Lille told a special Council sitting on Sunday. “To our shame, he was imprisoned here for most of his 27-year incarceration. But it was also from here that he gave his first address after his release.”

It was from the small balcony of the City Hall that Mandela made that address on 11 February 1990, to the square known as the Grand Parade. It was thus always likely that the Grand Parade would be the site of official commemorative events for the city. Cape Town has a paucity of other suitable Mandela-linked sites; there is Parliament, of course, and indeed a few floral tributes already adorn Parliament’s gates. There is also the Waterfront, because it is where the Robben Island ferry departs. (If you haven’t yet, do watch this poignant footage of two tourists waiting to board the ferry who were unaware that Nelson Mandela had died just hours previously.)

But the Waterfront, as a private shopping centre for elites, is of course wildly unsuitable for any large-scale commemorative events, though it has set up a marquee where visitors can leave tribute messages for Mandela. For traffic and space-related reasons, Parliament also doesn’t lend itself to the purpose. Apart from its symbolic value, the Grand Parade is large enough to accommodate vast crowds: it’s estimated that tens of thousands of people turned out to see their released leader for the first time in 1990.

As soon as the news broke, late on Thursday evening, the City of Cape Town sprang to life. Coincidentally, their media department had hosted a drinks party for journalists earlier that evening, where, in private conversations, the escalating rumours of Mandela’s imminent demise were discussed with some foreboding. The City will have had their plan in place for some time, but coordinating a whole city in mourning is inevitably a daunting affair. De Lille told journalists on Saturday morning that she had immediately met with officials on Thursday night at City Hall, close to midnight, and she was able to leave the hall only at 3.30am. Many will have had even less sleep than that.

The City’s M-Plan – to use the code-name most media houses gave their Mandela preparations – swung into action with ruthless efficiency. A room was set aside in the City Hall for the use of the media, and an accreditation process for journalists began. Workers immediately began to erect a stage in front of the City Hall to serve as the official platform for the memorials. Portaloo toilets were set up at the back of the normally down-at-heel Grand Parade, which buttresses Cape Town Station. An interfaith prayer service would be held at the Parade at 17h00 on Friday, it was announced, with free transport into the City.

Alongside the railings in front of the stage, people began to leave flowers and messages. One homeless man, seeking to give something in tribute to Mandela, solemnly placed a tin of pilchards on what would become a shrine. Throughout the weekend, people of all races quietly queued up to lay their flowers and cards. A reminder of Nelson Mandela’s popularity with children was found in the number of messages scrawled by youthful hands. “Dear Mandela. Rest in peace Tata Mandela. You gave us hope,” read one. “From Onyekuchi. I am nine years old.”

“Dear Mr Nelson Mandela I would like to thank you for being the hero of this country,” wrote 11-year-old Flynn Annesley. Other writers were a little older. “I don’t know what South Africa was like pre-1994, from personal experience,” read a short letter pinned to the railings. “But I know you dedicated your life to lifting the fog from everyone’s eyes.”

Anyone who had expected to see crowd scenes reminiscent of 1990 on Friday afternoon, however, would have been disappointed. The weather didn’t help: onlookers were bent against an atrocious gale, whipping up dust. Never was the Grand Parade even remotely close to full. Near the back of the square, an ANC-branded vehicle blasted music, while supporters toyi-toyied and danced around it. The audience which had made the outing was heartwarmingly racially-diverse. Parents carried children on their shoulders, ensuring they didn’t miss out on a piece of history. A number of those there had been part of that famous audience in 1990; earlier, a caller to Cape Talk had recounted how he met the woman he would eventually marry in that fateful crowd 23 years earlier.

Space was given to a range of religious faiths, including members of the Baha’i. A choir sang Va, Pensiero – the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves – from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. “Viva Nelson Mandela!” shouted a speaker. “Viva ANC!” Old political t-shirts – ANC and UDF – were a popular choice of apparel, as was Mandela-branded merchandise. The City distributed free posters: Mandela’s face, with the salient facts of his life and death printed below. As darkness crept on, the audience trickled away. Always-popular CBD bottle shop Harley’s featured extravagant queues that evening.

At a press briefing the next morning, De Lille laid out the full programme of commemorative events for the City. Wednesday will see the major action, with an event at Cape Town’s increasingly white elephant-y World Cup Stadium. “Prominent local acts will perform as well as a potential international artists,” the City promises. Transport, again, will be free.

Appropriately, not all the action is taking place within the city centre, where few of Cape Town’s economically marginalized citizens can afford to live. Monday and Thursday see remembrance events taking place in Khayelitsha and Atlantis respectively. But the Grand Parade continues to play a central role in the city’s official mourning events, with live simulcasts of the big events taking place elsewhere being broadcast. On Sunday, when the world’s eyes turn to the Eastern Cape, the funeral will be screened live too.

When discussing the relatively low turn-out to Grand Parade events thus far, it’s common to receive the response: “That’s typically Capetonian.” It’s hard to know quite what that means: perhaps a certain emotional diffidence among elites. “Not everyone wants to mourn the same way,” one shrugged. But there are no doubt practical issues at play too. Parking in the centre of town is scarce and expensive, someone pointed out; public transport can be inaccessible even if free. The city’s poorer residents live at some distance from the CBD: a remnant of the spatial Apartheid Mandela fought to dismantle.

It is also true that visitors to the Grand Parade have taken the form more of a steady stream, constantly arriving and leaving, rather than a dense glut. It will be interesting to see what attendance is like as days pass, and thoughts of Mandela become more remote. At the moment, Cape media – much as is the case country-wide – features pretty much wall-to-wall Mandela footage. Iqbal Surve’s Independent group certainly a picked a good time to quietly remove Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois: what has the makings of a major scandal will now almost certainly not attract the attention it would have at another time. [Gasant Abader was appointed Cape Times new editor late on Sunday – Ed]

“In Cape Town resides part of the souls of many nations and cultures, priceless threads in the rich diversity of our African nation,” said Nelson Mandela, upon being awarded the Freedom of the City of Cape Town. “It was the people of Cape Town who welcomed me on my first day of freedom.” Today, they bid him farewell. DM

Photo: People attend a special Sunday morning service dedicated to Nelson Mandela at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town December 8, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Wessels

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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