SOWETO, South Africa: Enduring a daylong downpour, tens of thousands of South Africans took up the torch carried by their nation’s founding father Nelson Mandela, passionately endorsing calls to perfect his Rainbow Nation.
Because of torrential rain and confusion over logistics, the vast canopy of umbrellas in the stadium alternated with blocks of empty orange seats, but for those who did attend, it was a historic and poignant day.
Trash-bag ponchos and a sliver of the same unwavering determination that vanquished white rule were all they needed to take this, another step along this reborn country’s long walk to freedom.
“If he was able to stay behind bars for 27 years for us, what is one day, just one rain-drenched day?” Musa Mbele asked.
But evidence abounded that the work of this young nation’s hero, talisman, president and founding father was not yet done.
The greatest cheers were for those speakers who demanded more freedom, more justice and more of what Mandela prescribed.
President Jacob Zuma – whose tenure in office has been plagued by scandals – was roundly and repeatedly booed, forcing ANC officials to call for order.
“I’m not listening to him. He must think about the people down there. We’re fed up with more taxes, tollgates, prices of food going up, while many of us got no job,” Phumzile Vilakaza said, leaving the stadium.
But the mood was also celebratory.
“I’m a born-free. I was born in ‘94,” 19-year-old engineering student Luyanda said with a big smile.
“The first few days I was crying. I’ve been watching everything on TV, documentaries. But today is a day of celebration,” Luyanda said.
People began gathering before daybreak to secure a seat and join nearly 100 heads of state and government who came to pay tribute to Mandela’s life and legacy.
“Viva Tata Madiba, Viva!” they shouted as the train door opened disgorging hundreds of mourners onto the station platform near the stadium.
From there, they walked, jogged, sang and chanted through an unusually rain-soaked Johannesburg toward the Soweto venue, determined to pay their respects to “Tata” (Father) Mandela.
Once inside, the physical structure seemed to undulate as the crowd stomped their feet and danced as one, like a giant wave.
“This is once in your life. This is history,” Noma Kova, 36 said. “I didn’t want to watch this on TV.”
They sang folk songs, religious songs and above all songs of the struggle that Mandela spearheaded.
For many of the tens of thousands who formed a heaving mass inside the venue, the horrors of Soweto, Sharpesville and Boipatong are as raw as the everyday humiliation of passbooks and separate toilets.
“I used to live on the main street of Soweto, and in 1976 ... I remember we would see students drop on the street like flies while we ran around ducking bullets,” said Jabu Maseko, 54, who owns an office equipment business.
“The most humiliating time was when I went to apply for a dom [pass] and being asked to strip naked in a room full of people for a so-called medical examination.”
Many in the stadium were wrapped in the South African flag or yellow and green shawls printed with the slogan “Mandela Forever,” and portraits of their hero.
“We’ve come full circle,” said Dudu Manala, 49, a member of the Imilonjikantu choir of Soweto who sang at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.
“Today we must let him go peacefully. Today is a day of celebration, and in our culture there’s always singing, when a child is born, when someone passes away, we cry, but we sing also,” Manala said.
“It’s a way of de-stressing, it’s like a therapy. But there will be more crying, when millions of people see the coffin, that is when they will feel the loss, the parting.”
Mandela’s body is to lie in state in Pretoria through Friday.
Mandela’s importance beyond South Africa’s borders was also in evidence, with flags from Zimbabwe, Ghana and Mozambique alongside those of South Africa.
Nigerian Fola Folowosele, 27, had been visiting friends in South Africa when the news that Mandela had died broke last Thursday.
For Folowosele, there was never any doubt in his mind that he would stay to be part of the weeklong funeral observances.
“He’s perhaps Africa’s greatest son, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
Some in the crowd recalled treasured moments when they had seen or in some cases even met or spoken to the man they had come to remember.
“When you say Mandela, you are talking South Africa,” said Julenda Ntlekoana, a nurse who met Mandela when he visited her Johannesburg hospital after he retired from office.