In every town in the United States you will probably find at least one street called Washington and possibly one public park or school named after our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. But I have never seen anything like South Africa’s passion for their first Black president, Nelson Mandela.
You can’t drive more than five minutes without passing a mall or shopping center named for him, and you probably drove on at least two Mandela Streets to get to those centers. And this isn’t in one city or even just his hometown, but it’s in every city over the entire country.
During my time in South Africa, Mandela was hovering somewhere between life and death. As the country absorbed itself in prayer and reflected on his legacy, his family — the South African version of the Kardashians — squabbled over his money and burial site.
I have never experienced the death of a public political figure. I wasn’t alive for the assassinations of Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy. Yes, Ted Kennedy died in 2009, but I wasn’t aware of his prestige. The closest were the deaths of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, but these celebrity deaths were unexpected and sudden. There was no time for prayer or debate over property until after the fact. Camera crews weren’t set outside their houses like they were at Mandela’s.
In South Africa, people came to pray or leave gifts and well wishes outside his home and they did the same later at the hospital. There were days when people were sure he was going to die and reporters flocked to his house, unenthusiastically hoping to break the story. During my lifetime, this waiting game has never been played in the United States.
Mandela is seen as the heart and savior of their country, despite being president just over a decade ago. Since his presidency, there have been very few politicians that South Africa has to be proud of. As one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Forbes Magazine, their political system is more of a burden than a highlight. The end of Mandela’s presidency turned quickly into police bribes and millions spent to pamper the current president’s cattle faster than anyone could have predicted.
It has taken more than 100 years for the Republican Party in the United States to adopt values different from those held during the Civil War. South Africa’s African National Congress has turned from freedom fighters into a corrupt political party in fewer than 30 years.
The South African people still hold on to Mandela because he is a reminder of what South Africa was supposed to be after the end of Apartheid. His death is not only a tragic loss of a beloved and inspirational leader, but end of the hope that Mandela could see a South Africa free of its apartheid past. Yes, segregation has ended in South Africa, but Mandela died without seeing equality between the Black and White populations in all aspects of life.
Jesse Klein is an LSA junior.