PRETORIA: Outside the hospital where Nelson Mandela fights the latest in a lifetime of struggles, his compatriots sing, remember and say goodbye to the father of their nation.
Young and old, black and white, the residents of this imperfect Rainbow Nation witness a moment tinged with sadness, but replete with a sense of history.
Many well wishers are content to snap themselves with mobile phones before a wall of handwritten notes praying for Mandela’s recovery that has become the focal point for an anxious nation.
“This is history in the making,” said 40-year-old Dianne Roe, clutching her friend’s hand as they made their way through the mass of people and flowers to get their picture taken.
Inside Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital is a man who is not only their former president, not only a freedom fighter and not only an ailing 94-year-old.
For South Africans Mandela is a moral beacon whose light shone around the world, a man who after decades of racist rule made them proud to be South African.
He transformed a country synonymous with apartheid into one synonymous with heroes: The land of Tutu, Biko, Tambo, Gordimer and of course Mandela.
“I don’t think anyone of us would be standing here today if it wasn’t for him,” said 11-year-old Tshepang Mogi.
“He didn’t fight for only the blacks, he fought for every race in the world to have freedom.”
Outside the hospital there is little sense of the tensions both racial and economic that still tug at this recently reborn nation, or of rumors that Mandela’s demise could herald black on white revenge.
Rosemarie van Staden, the owner of a local hotel, said it was now up to South Africans to take up the baton of reconciliation.
“Mr Mandela set the example for what forgiveness is all about. We must not bear grudges,” she said as she handed out muffins to the crowd.
“He wanted us to be a Rainbow Nation and we really must carry on.”
The buzz of generators feeding the television crews from around the world only adds to the sense of history.
But with South Africa’s democracy less than two decades old, here history is personal.
Fifty-year-old street cleaner Solly Malamela remembers the day in 1990 when everything changed, the day that Mandela walked free from a prison near Cape Town.
“I was just at home watching it on TV with my baby daughter. I believed that everything would be better for her, and for the new generation.”
“They wouldn’t have to struggle like us—walking with the dom pass (dumb pass) to go to town. I was able to walk without a pass book for the first time,” he said, remembering the ID cards that blacks were required to carry.
He also remembers the day four years later when millions of black South Africans went to vote for the first time.
“I was there at five o’clock in the morning to vote, but the queue was so long I had to go back later.”
“Seeing that queue, I didn’t feel angry that I woke up early in the morning, I felt happy that they were all coming out to vote. I said, let me give them the chance also.”
“For the first time, I realized that Mandela could win, and that everything in South Africa could be changed.”
Nearly 20 years on, despite Mandela’s importance, there is a sense he did enough to set the country on the right track.
“Here in South Africa it will be a very big loss, in the whole world, but there’s nothing we can do. He achieved what he was supposed to do,” said passer-by Bezo Zinde.