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Deanne Du Preez
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The long walk to the Union Buildings

14 December 2013, 17:42

4am was a little early to be getting up, but we had a mission ahead, and were determined to make it happen.  I had promised Andrew and Walter a visit to the Union Building to see Madiba Lying in State, and I was going to pay respects to Nelson Mandela on behalf of my rather large family, scattered around the countryside.

My stepmom was an ardent Madiba fan.  Her uncle, Walter Pollak, defended Madiba in the 1960’s, and Elaine was so proud of this.  She went in for a hip op, and was in a wheelchair outside the hospital one day, waiting for my dad to fetch the car, when Madiba arrived at the hospital for a check up.  He walked up to her and took her hand.  She was so overcome at meeting her hero that she burst into tears, forever losing the opportunity of telling him who she was.  She could not speak, and the moment passed.

We only got to Pretoria Fountains Circle at about 8.30, due to an accident on the freeway, and had a struggle to find parking.  We made our way to the end of the longest queue I have ever seen, with reporters walking up and down, photographing the masses, and the people all in a rather jovial mood, singing, and talking to their neighbours. It took about an hour and a half to get onto a bus, where the police were stopping cars to let busses through the Fountains Circle.  The busses take 2 minutes to fill. and about 15 minutes to get to town. There is an air of camaraderie everywhere, this is what Madiba fought for, and his legacy is alive today in the people.

The lines of people we passed in Pretoria were incredible.  People dressed in all sort of garb, ranging from South African flags draped across their shoulders, to ANC colours, some carrying placards, singing songs, and dancing, others with South African flags in their hair.  I was still thinking how lucky we were to be on the bus, when the bus stopped and discharged us ignominiously on a corner. We were told at Fountain Circle that we would be dropped off at the Union Building, now here we were 4 blocks away from our intended target, with thousands of people in front of us, also waiting to get there.

Here were a lot more police, and we were told to go to the back of the queues we had just driven past. Our spirits sagged a little, but not for long.  I stayed in one place while the guys went to find the end of the queue. I was in a lot of pain, and the thought of walking did not excite me at all. The cacophony of sound was everywhere, Tata Madiba’s name was on everyone’s lips. It was touching, and the spirit of friendship shone through from every strangers face that passed.

About 2 hours after they left I realise that Walter has my keys, with the pocket attached and all the money.  No tea.  Now I was really disappointed. An entire day and no tea...  They had both left their cell phones in the car. There was no option, I needed to find them.  I had been speaking to a delightful young policewoman, who was carefully guarding the end of the lines as they arrived making sure no one pushed in.  She said I could go and find them, and being a senior citizen, we would be able to take the short cut, and as both Andrew and I were senior citizens, Walter would be allowed with us. 

The streets are full of lines of people, waiting in expectation.  People who push in are pulled out, and told to go to the back of the line.  If all the police were as protective of people already in the queue here, then they must have been elsewhere too.  Faces dropped at the thought of going down to Mandela Street to join the end of the line. This of course did not stop people from trying to push in.

I started walking snaking my way through the crowds.  Slowly...  looking at every face I passed, I stopped counting blocks after 5 and soon found myself near the zoo.  It seemed the lines were dwindling, Still no Walter and Andrew. This was where I noticed a problem. There were pavements that were in the process of being fixed and rocks, and cement had been kicked around, there were a lot of obstacles for others to pass.  This should have been sorted, even if it meant that work was done at night to sort it out, but it had not been done.

 I slowly started making my way back to McDonalds. The day was hot and the sweat was pouring down my face.  I sat on the steps outside McDonalds, and waited. People stopped to pass the time of day. The elders and disabled were taken out of the lines and assisted to the short cut, straight up the hill. The smiling faces were still all around me, and it is exhilarating being here, the expectancy is almost tangible, and no one else seems to mind the wait, except those trying to push in. The rest waited their turn with dignity, it was after all, to honour a great and humble man.

Then the money makers arrived. Cars pulled into empty parking bays, and out came the T-Shirts, hats, flags, buttons and other Mandela memorabilia. There was money to be made, and a lot of people are happy today because yesterday they made more money in one day than they had in months. Their stock was soon depleted and replenished. Youngsters walking up and down the lines, selling their chips, icies, (frozen juices in oblong plastic bags) cigarettes, all in sing song voices  “Nicie nicie coldie icie” Or “Simba’s so Good n’ crispie!”  Others walking with large stamps, R5.00 to have it stamped anywhere on your body.  These cost about R150 to make, but the amount of people with stamps on their faces, arms, legs, and chests, means they had made a huge profit. Good for them! Tata Photostatted pictures, some framed others not, being sold for anything up to R150 per picture framed, and R30 unframed,or 2 for R50. South Africans are real entrepreneurs, any opportunity is not missed.

At long last Walter calls me from a public phone booth, and I tell him where I am, and that he and Andrew must come to where I was.  From then on it took 30 minutes. We just walked straight up to the corner, was allowed to cross the road, one more block and then the police were in front of the gates at the bottom of the hill.  Our thumb nails were marked and we were searched. 

Andrew was singled out for an interview.  We stopped while the camera was on him, wearing his Nelson Mandela shirt and hat. He spoke, and was asked questions, which he answered not even once looking into the camera, I was so proud of him. Then we, the senior citizens, walked up the right hand side of the winding road, while the younger mourners were walking up the left. We got to the top, and the senior citizens were allowed to go first.  The first time I was really grateful to be a senior citizen. We got to the top, and the lines were still dancing and singing, we passed them all and were soon climbing the stairs, then it was our chance to to pass by the Bier. One by one, single line. There were two naval officers standing with heads bowed and their hands on their swords at both the front and back of Tata’s casket. The wood was light. Mandla Mandela was seated on a chair, watching over his grandfather. And the police stood guard on the sides. The smell of flowers was overpowering. Lilies stood there in abundance.

Mr Mandela looked peaceful, wearing one of his signature shirts, I cried as I passed by his casket. Andrew and Walter both lifted their hands in Salute. It was as if I was looking at something not quite real, but it really was Tata Madiba.  He beautiful had been made up, and his hair was in place.  It was over in seconds.  Police standing with tissues, and a wheelchair standing by for any contingency. Down the stairs to where the busses waited to take us back to our our park and ride areas.

The mood going out of the building was sombre, no more laughing and singing, just silent faces, tears pouring down some, and others resolute not to break down. Still others hugging each other in their grief.

Getting onto the busses was a great problem.  You would be standing first in the line,  and then the bus leaves full, and you are still standing there, having been shoved and pushed and almost trampled out of the way.  I guess everyone was tired after their long day.  It was now 3.30 and I desperately wanted to go home. The bus trip back was dreadful, the bus was overcrowded, yet still the people pushed their way on.  I sat down on the floor next to the bus driver, who was a rather pleasant man, and we chatted. It was so hot, and there was no air.  He was angry that they busses were not being helped by the police in getting back to their designated areas, the traffic was bad, and instead of the ten minutes, it took about half an hour to get back to The Fountains Circle.

At last we got there, and imagine our shock at the queues still there waiting for a bus to the Union Buildings. Thousands upon thousands of people desperately waiting to pay their respect to one of our greatest Sons. Walter did tell them that they would not make it before 5.00pm, but they were not leaving until a bus picked them up. My heart feels for them, hours of waiting without seeing their Most Beloved Tata.

My suggestion would have been, fill the bus up, go directly to union building, leave to fetch the next lot.  By the time the first lot was out of the union building, the second bus would be waiting to ferry them back to their cars, and so forth. It was badly done, and the number of people who did not get to see their Icon was very sad.

The day was long, my face back and neck are sunburned, but even knowing what I know now, the crowds, the pushing and shoving, the heat, the laughter, the singing, the spirit of togetherness, I would do it just for a chance to see Tata Madiba again, and for the unity that I experienced on my long walk to the Union Building, even if for only a few  seconds.  Rest in peace Tata.

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