PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — After absorbing the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela and making it to South Africa for Tuesday’s memorial services, I joined and watched as the people of South Africa continued to express their love for Nelson Mandela.
I wanted to visit Mandela’s old home in Soweto at 8115 Orlando West, which had been the scene of dancing and singing after he passed, and also to go where he had been living most recently in the Houghton section of Johannesburg.
I had been on the street to see the Mandelas’ original house when I first helped bring the NBA to South Africa in 1993. My wife, Ann, and our 5-year-old, Emily, were with me, along with David Stern, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Wes Unseld and Lenny Wilkens. Ann and I will always remember Emily getting down on the floor of the van after observing that Mandela’s house was surrounded by tin-roofed shanties that were typical of the houses and poverty in Soweto. It was her first experience with serious poverty, and she couldn’t look at directly.
That poverty was, of course, overwhelmingly the indisputable result of the apartheid regime’s oppression of the 81 percent of the population who were people of color.
Mourners leave after paying their respects to former South African President Nelson Mandela during the lying in state.
Unlike the shanties that surrounded their home, the Mandelas’ home was red brick, which was needed to keep bullets from penetrating their home. It looks the same today except the shanties are all gone, and 8115 Orlando West is now Mandela House, a historical site. It is now surrounded by shops and restaurants. Inside, ANC Youth give tours of the home’s history. The family lived there from 1946 until shortly after Mandela was released from prison in 1990. In his book “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela wrote: “That night I returned with Winnie to No. 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No. 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”
The return was short-lived. Once I saw the bullet-ridden walls both inside and outside, and seeing the scorched floors that had been firebombed over the years, it was understandable why the ANC moved the Mandelas to their current home 11 days after his release.
Just as I had seen on TV, people were joyously singing and dancing as they were celebrating and not mourning their hero. Bouquets of flowers were placed near the entrance.
From there, we went to his current home at 19 Fourth Street in Houghton. Considering he was a world leader, it was a modest home in a very nice neighborhood. Even more people were there standing outside his house in front of a literal wall of flowers stretching for half a block. Handwritten notes and homemade posters were sprinkled in with the flowers.
TV interviews were underway. I was particularly struck by two young white children responding to the question “What does Nelson Mandela mean to you?” Both responded, “I love Madiba!” One said: “He was so kind. He loved white people and black people.” A black child added, “He taught us to love.”
Everything I have seen here has reinforced that the love for Mandela was universal. The crowd at the FNB Stadium for the memorial service was very integrated. The same was true of all the street scenes in Johannesburg.
But nothing showed it as clearly as the more than 110,000 people who got in line to view Nelson Mandela’s body at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The lines were reminiscent of those that formed when all South Africans were able to vote for the first time in 1994 to choose Mandela as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. It was an incredible sight and reflected the outpouring of love and respect for this icon.
Getting there was a slow trip. People waited four hours to board buses to transport them to the Union Buildings. There were some 150 buses. Once the buses got near the Union Buildings, it took another three to four hours to reach where passengers would be dropped off inside the grounds. I boarded a bus along the way. It was a rich mix of people all seeking to honor Mandela: old people, children, whites, blacks, a group of Boy Scouts, Muslim women in traditional gear. By the time I had gotten on the bus around 1 p.m., most had been on it since 10 a.m. after standing in line for hours. It was a hot day in Pretoria, and the bus was not air-conditioned. I can only imagine what the mood would have been in any big city in the United States.
At the end of a long day for many mourners Thursday, a rainbow shines over the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, where former President Nelson Mandela’s casket lies in state.
But here, everyone was happy. Sweating profusely, with little air, people were singing. With 15 or so people standing, it was too crowded to dance, otherwise I am sure that would have happened. Riders were sharing food and drinks. The bus route was through an affluent neighborhood. People came out of their gated homes to offer drinks through the bus windows. Like most upscale neighborhoods in South Africa, high security walls topped off with barbed wire are the norm. Residents were not concerned on this day.
By 2 p.m., no one had been off the bus to use a bathroom. Then I saw a white woman open her gates and ask people on the bus if they wanted to use her bathroom. She let five people in and walked them to her door. Her two young boys darted to the gate and locked it so the riders who had gotten there next could not get in. The mother saw this and ran to the gate waving her children off and unlocking the gate. It was an awesome sight in a country where the fear of crime is palpable.
For the last block of the ride I was standing by Paddy, who was with his two children and girlfriend. Paddy is white and had served in the National Service during the apartheid era, the same service that upheld the white power under the brutal laws of apartheid. He told me he wanted his children to pay their respects to their great leader. Like I said in a previous column this week, the inauguration of Nelson Mandela was a signal that anything and everything was possible.
We finally got our turn and walked past the casket and saw Nelson Mandela, dressed in his traditional African shirt. He looked at peace, fitting for the man who had brought his country what was an almost unthinkable peace and democracy.