A week’s long walk to see Madiba one last time

It has been a hard emotional week, chasing one of the biggest stories in the history of our country.

Days of little sleep, mammoth queues, and a sense of comradre we are unlikely to experience again.

A flag "flies" half mast at a colleague's desk in The Star newspaper's newsroom

A flag “flies” half mast at a colleague’s desk in The Star newspaper’s newsroom

 

I hope these photographs and this story I wrote for The Saturday Star captures it all.

 

UNDER the verdigrised gaze of Oom Paul, Angel Mpho decided something drastic needed to be done to keep this pilgrimage going.

“We are going to hijack this bus,” she said, pointing to the bus as it headed in our direction.

Our journey through the streets of Pretoria trying to get to the Union Buildings to view Nelson Mandela Laying in State

Our journey through the streets of Pretoria trying to get to the Union Buildings to view Nelson Mandela Laying in State

The bus turned down a side street before we could spring to action.

“Someone run after that bus,” she shouted.

No one moved, we weren’t sure if she was joking.

Angel Mpho now needed another plan for this group of pilgrims.

Angel Mpho Mokoene, our guide for the day

Angel Mpho Mokoene, our guide for the day

We had gathered opposite Church Square in Pretoria, with its bird-poop-covered statue of Paul Kruger, and we were heading to pay our respects to another former president, Nelson Mandela.

Getting to the centre of Pretoria was the easy part. First an air-conditioned Gautrain ride

From Park Station in Johannesburg, then a hop on a Gautrain bus. But from here it was uncharted territory. Was it better to walk to the Union Buildings from Vermeulen street to get to Madiba Lying in State? Or find one of those park and rides? We weren’t sure.

There were others on the bus also heading to the Union Buildings, and they were just as confused.

That is us outside the Pretoria Show grounds

That is us outside the Pretoria showgrounds

That is when guide Angel Mpho Mokoene miraculously appeared. She had been on the Gautrain bus all along. “Follow me,” she said.

We followed.

To the Pretoria showgrounds it would be, she said, to catch a bus to the Union Buildings. She was a volunteer guide helping the thousands make their way to Madiba.

By now, with Oom Paul still there with the pigeons, we realised Angel was joking about the hijacking, she just wanted to flag down the bus.

Our taxi journey

Our taxi journey

It was time for plan B.

“We will take a taxi,” she said.

The taxi driver eyed our multiracial group suspiciously as Angel knocked down his usual R12 fare to R6.

Then we piled in, 21 passengers and a stuffed Garfield Cat into a taxi meant for 14.

It was a squeeze, but it added to the growing adventure.

Harold Melvin’s and the Blue Notes Don’t Leave Me This Way pumping from the radio.

Before we could head out and cover the Mandela story, we journalists had to get accreditation. This required standing in a long queue for six hours

Before we could head out and cover the Mandela story, we journalists had to get accreditation. This required standing in a long queue for six hours

“Oh baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you,” the first line of the chorus went and we sang along.

For those who didn’t know the words, it was okay – the song was on repeat, so you could learn them as you went along.

Eventually we got to the showgrounds but time had run out. We gathered at the gate to be told that no one else was being let in, we had missed the cut-off time.

Our pilgrimage had failed, but it had been an experience.

People who were strangers just an hour earlier swapped cellphone numbers, they would try and do it all again tomorrow.

Just maybe, it was that last bit of Madiba Magic working to get a bunch of South Africans together for one last jol, before disappearing for good.

For some this experience was enough and they planned not to return. Others like me would try another day.

The Nelson Mandela memorial, that was held at the FNB stadium on Tuesday.

The Nelson Mandela memorial, that was held at the FNB stadium on Tuesday.

The second attempt began yesterday at 4:30am. This time there would be no Angel.

A Gautrain trip to Hatfield station in Pretoria, then a walk to the LC de Villiers Sports Facility for the park and ride that would ferry people wanting to pay their respects to the Union Buildings.

By the time we arrived at 6:30am the queues were already possibly kilometres long. An hour later the Government Communications Information System estimated that there were 7 000 people in the facility hoping to get onto a bus.

But we were optimistic, the queue was moving and the people, as on Wednesday, were friendly and chatty.

“Unfortunately I will only see him now that he is dead,” said Itumeleng Tladi, who was just behind us in the line.

Like me, this was her second attempt. She planned to phone her grandmother just after she viewed Madiba. Her grandma could not make the trip.

As the sun rose higher, the lines slowed and the ice-cream vendors started picking up trade. Everyone in the queue had a Mandela story. Vincent Sibanyoni told us how he had shaken Madiba’s hand in Randburg.

“He’s the king above kings of South Africa. Even kings are buried, but not like this,” said Sibanyoni.

Joe Matlanato’s Mandela story is his face.

Mandela look alike Joe Matlanato

Mandela look alike Joe Matlanato

The crowd noticed his uncanny resemblance to the dead statesman soon after he joined the queue. Some wanted their picture with him.

“People keep asking me if I am his brother. But I am a Northern Sotho,” he said.

A little later on, a policeman allowed Matlanato on the back of his quad bike. The crowd cheered as he drove by, his fist held in the air, just like Madiba once did.

The hours passed and the queue crawled. From the flashes on Twitter, a slow realisation began to build. The Union Buildings was swamped with mourners, it was so bad the buses were trapped inside. Then, the news…

The situation had become so bad at the Union Buildings that they were only going to allow 200 more mourners.

I wasn’t going to see the great man lying in state, nor was Itumeleng going to make that call to her granny. We weren’t alone, tens of thousands would be turned away.

We will have Mandela stories, but they won’t be of seeing a dead man lying in a coffin; our’s will be the old tales of glimpses of the big man, of handshakes, sightings at sports events and how he changed us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
This entry was posted in journalism, Media, south african history, stories behind the news and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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