You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Scene Outside Nelson Mandela's Home was Not that Dramatic—Because His Country Has Become a Normal One

Oli Scarff/Getty

“What will we do now that our father is gone?” Archbishop Desmond Tutu keened over the radio, his voice cracking, in a speech responding to former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday at age 95. Go shopping, evidently. On South African airways and in the international press, the mood is somber grief, but the vibe on the South African street itself is decidedly different: Life goes on. Around noon today I went to Nelson Mandela Square, a cobblestoned quad in the middle of a shopping mall presided over by a huge, grinning bronze statue of Mandela. It’s one of the most famous Mandela statues in the country, and the mall clearly anticipated a throng of mourners. Packs of earpiece-wearing security guards had been deployed, and two taped-off areas indicated where people should wait in line to take their picture with the statue and leave bouquets of flowers. But the flower area was less than a quarter full; I saw a guard bravely trying to space out the bouquets to look less sparse, but it still looked forlorn. The photo line was only a few people deep. A nearby poster exhibit on Mandela’s life had no visitors at all. Inside the mall, though, the stores were full. Families bought ice cream, young women perused handbags at Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and a middle-aged black man in a platinum suit shouted about a business deal over his Samsung Galaxy while another black man polished his shoes. Commanding more crowd attention than the Mandela memorial was a Christmas parade with characters dressed as South African candy bars and elves on stilts.

At Mandela’s home in a leafy suburb called Houghton Estate, the crowd that had come to leave flowers and gawk over a police tape at the train of official mourners arriving at the Mandela door was a little larger, but not huge, and in several hours there I saw no visible grief. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere, with small circles of singers and dancers, one group, rather mystifyingly, hoisting the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A man hawked baseball caps with a picture of Che Guevara. A group of politicians beyond the police tape gave each other bear hugs and guffawed at something inaudible. Over by the shrine of flowers building up at the house’s corner, everybody who laid a bouquet wanted their photo taken. They all smiled. Some flashed the peace sign, as though they were at the Statue of Liberty. Lone among the crowd, a little boy wailed. His father promised him something to eat, and he quieted. Two fabulously coiffed ladies in stiletto heels tottered under an outrageously large bouquet quilled with signs advertising its corporate provenance: “From SCIP Engineering.” “Fix it so you can see the logo,” one woman hissed to the other as they set it down. Another woman in Mary-Kate Olsen sunglasses instructed her iPhone-wielding husband how to capture the moment she lay down her bouquet: "I want video. I want Instagram. I want everything!"

I took a spot along the police tape. Next to me, a black cameraman with a salt-and-pepper five-o’-clock shadow bitched to his German anchor about his disappointment with the scene. "This is nothing,” he muttered, referring to the size of the crowd. He began to tell her how much more seriously people took this kind of moment in the past—under apartheid. “In the past, for a big death, people would run from their houses as soon as they heard. People would be holding the coffin high and shouting. No amount of tear gas would deter you. This is nothing."

Isn’t that Mandela’s gift to us, though? Isn’t it the most wonderful thing that the day of his death can be, all things considered, a relatively ordinary, even a cheerful day, without all the high drama and tear gas of black-leader deaths past? Contrast it with the 1993 death of Chris Hani, a black-liberation leader considered by some to be the equal of Mandela in vision and power. There were days of riots; police opened fire on a crowd of Soweto mourners and wounded 100; the country looked near the brink of a meltdown. Now, Hani was assassinated, always a more shocking and angering end. But still—how far South Africa has come in 20 years! To me, the mood at Mandela’s house today signaled a firm confidence the country can carry on without its “father.” There was no sense of fear. Mandela was responsible for instilling that confidence by always insisting he was no god whose passing ought to provoke hysteria and terror. Like George Washington, he wound down his public influence after voluntarily leaving office, preparing the country far in advance for his final exit off stage. He facilitated the slightly weird sense I got that the so-called “mourners” were actually cheerfully visiting a memorial to an event that had happened years ago. Their smiles were his final creation.

Earlier this year, I wrote in The New Republic about the anger young black South Africans, in particular, feel about their abiding poverty and the “bad deal” Mandela supposedly “cut” for them by allowing whites to retain their economic position. That anger runs deep, and it will outlast the bursts of affection triggered by his death. The truth is that the overarching structure of South Africa’s economy has not changed much since apartheid, keeping many blacks trapped in a paradigm of poverty from which they’d reasonably expected to be freed. But an equal truth runs parallel to that truth. This is the truth that the country has been utterly transformed in terms of the ordinariness of everyday life. Under apartheid South Africa was one of the cruelly weirdest countries on Earth. The comings and goings of every South African, whether black or white, were molded by its strange host of laws, permitting nobody the chance to just get on it. Blacks couldn’t enter certain stores or walk on certain streets without a “pass.” Whites couldn’t be seen on the street with a black lover. People were prisoners to the movements and decisions of high-level political actors. Even death was extraordinary. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a mixed-race man called Heasham Effendi told of the anguish of watching his white friend die because the wrong ambulance—a mixed-race-only ambulance—had been dispatched to the man’s house after a heart attack, and, constricted by the law, the medics refused to treat him. The episode “destroyed my faith in humanity,” Effendi testified. “It nearly destroyed my faith in God.”

While not every life in post-Mandela South Africa is a happy life, every life has more access to moments of ordinariness. There is no more tear gas, less omnipresent fear. Everyone can walk around, regardless of race, in the Sandton City Mall, and take their kids together with kids of all classes and races to watch people dressed like candy bars parade around on the day of Nelson Mandela’s death. This is Mandela’s legacy. When I first got to Houghton Estate, I, like the cameraman I overheard, was also startled by the almost happy-go-lucky, almost silly, any-old-day-out-on-the-town mood. But given that he secured South Africans a more ordinary everyday life, it then seemed to me entirely fitting that the day of his death would be an ordinary one, too—and that his passing, unlike the acts of leaders under apartheid, turned out to have no real power to disturb the normal rhythms of a chilly Friday in Johannesburg. That is itself a tribute.