What it was like to cover Madiba’s funeral

By admin
17 December 2013

YOU journalist Asa Sokopo was in Mthatha and Qunu for Madiba’s funeral. Here she relates how his death brought back memories of her father passing

As journalists we had always been told to prepare ourselves for the eventuality of Nelson Mandela's death. At times we would go on holiday fearing the worst. Madiba had been in and out of hospital more times than I can count and we were often nervous about cutting our holidays short to report for duty. As callous as this may sound, that was the general attitude, but little did we know...

No amount of preparation could fully get us ready to cover one of the biggest news events the world has ever seen. Yes, we could have a plan of where we would go when the time came, or even what type of stories we would write.

But what didn't cross our minds, not my mind at least, is how we would feel. As a journalist, I was fortunate to be so close to one of the biggest news events in South Africa, if not the world, was what I initially thought.

Shock, grief, sadness and even trauma formed part of the feelings I experienced during the 10 days of national mourning. But for the longest time, I wasn't able to identify what these feelings actually were. After spending almost eight days away from my family, I'd simply dismissed the feelings to being homesick. It was only when I saw the funeral procession pass me by in York Street, Mthatha, that I identified what these feelings really were. In retrospect, they were all too familiar. It has been two years since I lost my own father after a long battle with cancer. And seeing Madiba's coffin took me right back to the day I lost my own father. For that moment, as the cortège passed me, followed by the hearse carrying Madiba's coffin, I froze.

'For that moment, as the cortège passed me, followed by the hearse carrying Madiba's coffin, I froze'

It was so close to me, a mere three meters away – I could have touched it. I blinked back the tears and carefully observed those around me. While I can never fully know what they were thinking, they faces told a story. Grown men were unsuccessfully fighting back tears while a woman next to me visibly wept.

And as the cortège passed and disappeared, people, including myself, remained rooted to their positions as if waiting for something else to happen. At that moment, for me, his death hit home.

I had never met Madiba. I had seen him at arm’s length in 1995, a year after he had become South Africa’s first democratically elected president. I was just 10 years old when he visited King William’s Town, near Bhisho, the old Eastern Cape town where I had been born and raised.

When the head mistress of the all-girls school I attended made the announcement over the telecom that Mandela would be driving through the main road, we were all extremely excited. We made our way to the main road and within minutes, it started pouring with rain. There we were, a good 400 or so girls soaked to the skin, our teeth chattering, waiting for a man who had, to us, only existed on television. He was also the reason I was able to attend the school I did, I was told. When he finally arrived and emerged from the car with his fist clenched in the air, all that could be heard was excited screams.

'As he walked through the crowd back to his car, I realised I had seen one of the greatest human beings that ever walked the earth'

He walked through the crowd of school girls and even picked one of us up. At that moment as he walked through the crowd back to his car, I realised I had seen one of the greatest human beings that ever walked the earth.

Mandela freed South Africa from the shackles of apartheid and will always remain an iconic symbol of peace and reconciliation. He had always modestly maintained that he was chosen to be at the forefront at the democratic movement, not because he was any better than his compatriots but simply because he could.

Who can ever forget these words: "The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation."

Now as South Africa moves towards a new era, one without the man who is one of the world’s most revered public figures, we have a responsibility to uphold the principles Madiba stood for and fought so hard for.

He proved to the world seemingly intractable disputes could be resolved. Our global symbol of reconciliation, the father of our democracy and the champion of the liberation struggle, you will always be remembered for your unwavering dedication to this nation.

Lala ngoxolo tata. Ahh Dalibhunga! Mthembu, Yem Yem, Ngqolomsila, Sopitsho, Vela bambhentsele, Zondwa zintshaba zingazumenz'anto, ugqatso ulifezile.

- Asa Sokopo

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