A dawn interfaith service kicked off a sombre day of remembrance, with the country’s living liberation heroes gathering at the Freedom Park amphitheatre in Pretoria.
“Twenty years of democracy has been possible because of Mandela,” tribal chief Ron Martin said as the sun edged over Pretoria’s hills and the smell of herbs burning in spiralled antelope horns wafted over the ceremony.
“Any sense of pride was frowned upon by apartheid,” he said, “but we are reclaiming that today.”
Wreaths were laid at the base of a five-metre statue of a smiling Madiba, the clan name by which South Africans affectionately call a man who is both father of the nation and their favourite son.
“The body gave in but Madiba’s spirit never, never changed, it was always the same until the end,”Mandela’s widow Graca Machel said before laying a huge ring of white flowers and pale pink roses at the base of the statue.
She then joined hands with members of Mandela’s family in prayer.
“Madiba is, in spirit, the same even today,” said Machel. “I know Madiba is smiling, Madiba is happy because he is amongst the family he chose to build.”
She said she was “numb” when her husband died, but said she now remembers him as “tall and proud.”
During the service, bells tolled for three minutes and seven seconds — followed by three minutes of silence: a six-minute and seven-second dedication toMandela’s 67 years of public service.
Mandela’s old comrades, rights lawyer George Bizos and Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned with him on Robben Island, also paid tribute to the icon.
“I miss him not only as a political leader, I miss him as an elder brother,” said Kathrada, his voice shaking.
“When Madiba died, I asked who should I turn to, I am still looking to somebody.”
Bizos — who provided legal representation forMandela, Kathrada and other activists charged with sabotage in the 1960s — implicitly criticisedMandela’s successors.
The 86-year-old commended the late leader’s commitment to the rule of law, saying he had “respect for our courts”.
“He was very proud of the constitution that we put together,” Bizos told the gathering.
The veteran also used the opportunity to bemoan the high levels of corruption in the country.
“Nelson Mandela would be disappointed with some of the things that are happening in South Africa, he would be disappointed with the corruption,” said Bizos.
The iconic leader passed away at the age of 95 last year, after a long period of illness.
He was buried on December 15 at Qunu, his ancestral rural village in the Eastern Cape region.
Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu called on South Africans to emulate Mandela’s example in a statement to mark the anniversary.
“Our obligation to Madiba is to continue to build the society he envisaged, to follow his example,” Tutu said.
“A society founded on human rights, in which all can share in the rich bounty God bestowed on our country. In which all can live in dignity, together. A society of better tomorrows for all.”
President Jacob Zuma, who is currently in China described the anniversary as a “sad day in our country” — a day to reflect on the road travelled since the end of apartheid in 1994.
“We are grateful to Madiba’s leadership as the first president of our country, as he laid a firm foundation,” Zuma said in a speech delivered in Beijing.
A long list of other events dedicated to Mandela were set to take place into the weekend and beyond, including a friendly cricket match, dubbed theMandela Legacy Cup, between South Africa’s national rugby and cricket teams due to start at 1300 GMT.
Mandela’s death was met with a worldwide outpouring of grief.
He set South Africa on a course towards reconciliation after he emerged unbowed from nearly three decades in prison in 1990 and became the country’s first president to be elected by universal suffrage in 1994.
His one-time jailer FW de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, called on South Africans to honour his legacy.
“Although Nelson Mandela is no longer physically with us his legacy remains to guide us,” he said in a statement. – AFP