‘Here we are at Qunu — I can smell the smoke’

2013-12-16 00:00

A PIETERMARITZBURG couple used a marathon motorcycle journey and a tent to mark Mandela’s burial yesterday — having already travelled to tribute events in Howick, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria this week.

With their bikes covered in South African flags and bandanas reading “RIP Tata Mandela”, Rodger Ferguson, a former clerk, and his wife, Deidre Carter, a Cope MP, became a focal point for hoots, road-side singing and “a wonderful sharing” in the Eastern Cape.

Yesterday, Ferguson and Carter were one of three ordinary South African couples The Witness found in Mandela’s clan area, who, despite having no access to the funeral, braved the mud, the uncertainty of army road closures and travelled over 1 000 km simply to be there — to mark Madiba’s death with the AbaThembu people.

Two Johannesburg business people approached their pilgrimage from the opposite direction. They drove through the passes of Aliwal North with their tent to visit Mandela’s boarding school, his birth place, and to within sight of the bayonets and the smell of the cannon smoke of the funeral itself.

Jonathon Rees (47), a science communicator from Johannesburg, and business developer Melanie Keartland (49), laid flowers at both the Houghton house and Vilakazi street, Soweto, last week, and celebrated his support for science education at a tribute at the CSIR in Pretoria.

Having downloaded Mandela’s greatest speeches and struggle songs for their car’s sound system, they then embarked on a 2 000 km tribute trip that wound through Clarkebury Secondary School in Engcobo, his birthplace of Mvezo, local villages and Qunu.

At 9 am yesterday, Rees said, “It’s been an amazing journey — spending time with his people, finding the little piece of Mandela that is inside all of us, committing to make it grow and here we are at Qunu — I can smell the smoke. In 1994, I voted for him in the very hall in Bloemfontein where the ANC was founded. I was there at the Union Buildings for his inauguration and I vowed I would be there at the end.”

Rees said scenes on the tribute trip included petrol attendants wearing black Madiba armbands, donating food and seeing hopeful children at a school that Mandela had built.

“Standing just metres from the hut where Madiba was born — that was the holy grail. There was no one around; it was a powerful place to reflect on this life,” he said.

Keartland said she would return in exactly one year to visit the grave.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the security cordon at Qunu, Kolela Mkukuwana (29) and Phathu Mathivha (32), draped in flags, embraced strangers at the roadside.

The couple had been turned away from viewing Mandela lying in state at the Union Buildings when time expired on Thursday. So they simply flew to the Eastern Cape and drove “to history”.

“The atmosphere has been amazing,” said Mkukwana.

Ferguson recalled a time when, while serving as municipal clerk of Mtubatuba, he was reprimanded by the IFP mayor for wearing a tie bearing Mandela’s picture.

He responded, “But it is the face of the country.”

“I was made to apologise in council for wearing that tie,” he said.

Starting their journey at the site in Howick where Mandela was captured, the couple attended the special session of Parliament to honour Madiba, sang with 65 000 fellow South Africans at the memorial service at the FNB stadium, and completed the full circle of mourning at the Union Buildings and at Qunu.

On Saturday, the couple joined hundreds of mourners as a link of the human chain that lined Upper Qunu and saluted Mandela’s passing coffin.

“We wanted to go to the places with big screens in a local area and share that experience with the people on the ground,” Ferguson said.

He said it was the first time he’d ever travelled with no idea where he’d sleep.

“Part of the motivation to me is the way Nelson Mandela conducted himself. He was prepared to be president for everybody,” Ferguson said.

“The journey reminds you of what Madiba said in his book, that when you get on top of the hill you see that there are more hills in front of you.”

“It was so beautiful. I couldn’t believe everyone hooting at us,” said Carter.

“It was amazing all the way from Kok­stad.”

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