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Mourning 'the Messiah of our time' in South Africa

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Craig Kielburger signs a book of condolences at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg.

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Craig Kielburger signs a book of condolences at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Joining thousands of others before me, this morning I lined up in Johannesburg to sign the condolence book for Nelson Mandela.

It’s difficult to find words to adequately honour a man who brought such significant societal transformation to a country, and the world. So I settled on the most simple of sentiments.

"The young people of Canada, the U.S., U.K. and the world are forever inspired by you, and promise to continue your life's mission of compassion and equality. In gratitude."

Similar books have been placed across South Africa and at high commissions around the world. The book I signed was at Nelson Mandela Square in the shadow of a six-metre statue of the former South African president. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with many South Africans looking for ways to mourn the passing of their favourite son.

Jacqui Makume was at the square with her five-year-old daughter. The 29-year-old massage therapist called Mandela "the Messiah of our time."

Paying tribute to Mandela was crucial and she said she’d go to any lengths to do so, especially to attend the stadium memorial tomorrow in this city. "I would walk 100 kilometres to get there, if I had to."

One of the organizers of the condolence book, Karen Hartdegen, said the written tributes will be compiled and placed in a government archives as a record of the public outpouring for the leader she deeply admired. When she learned of the 95-year-old’s death at 2 a.m. last Thursday, she rushed to be with other comrades from the African National Congress.

"There was both sadness and a sense of joy," she said. "It was also so spiritual, so eternal, because that was the kind of man he was."

The period of mourning for the man, affectionately known by his clan name Madiba, is ten days, to end on Dec. 15, when he is buried at his ancestral home of Qunu. In between, South Africans have flocked to those places that Mandela’s presence can be felt.

Hundreds of people continued to gather Monday afternoon at the home where Mandela died quietly with his family around him. There were candles, police torches and cooking fires amid t-shirt hawkers and the growing shrine of hand-written notes, bouquets of flowers and balloons. At one point, doves were released into the sky as people cheered, then sang. Every now-and-then, bands with tubas shuffled through the crowd.

The streets around Mandela’s home were closed off, and jammed with people. A rumour spread through the crowd that U.S. President Barack Obama might show up at the home when he touched down in Johannesburg before tomorrow’s memorial. The excitement of that possibility faded quickly when CNN’s Anderson Cooper showed up to conduct interviews.

Trixi Hlatshwayo was supposed to be selling ice cream from her pushcart, but business was slow, so she shuffled danced to the music instead.

The 25-year-old said the work of Mandela changed her life. "He made it so we are free." But she also said she is worried that life will get worse for black South Africans now that Mandela is dead. "We can only pray." Then, she sold a frozen berry bar to a journalist, and smiled.

 

Craig Kielburger is an international activist and co-founder of Free The Children

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