Rain was falling when mourners converged on the South African Embassy in Northwest Washington on the evening of Dec. 6, but the mood wasn’t solemn as they paid tribute to the man whose political activism took him from prison to the presidency of South Africa and earned him a world-wide reputation for spearheading the movement that led to the dismantling of the racist apartheid system there.
While there were some tears, the men and women who went to the embassy to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Nelson Mandela were mostly upbeat.
They sang, they prayed, they danced the toi-toi, a traditional South African dance.
They were American and South African. They were Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and combinations of those groups. They were old and young, poor and wealthy, conservative and liberal. The thing they had in common was a respect for the man who, after spending the early part of his life oppressed by the ills of segregation and racism and 26 years in prison for standing up for right, had the grace to forgive and move the nation toward racial conciliation and unity.
The Dec. 6 vigil was among several memorial events planned to give local residents a place to mourn the loss of Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at age 95.
Hundreds of people have gone to the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW to sign a book of condolence and gaze at a bronze statue of Mandela. Though the embassy is being renovated, workers removed fencing Dec. 6 to allow people access to the grounds and statue. Embassy visitors have left mementos, gifts and flowers in honor of the late leader.
“This is not a sad occasion, [but] a time when we must pick ourselves up because there is still unfinished business to be done,” South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rosool told the audience at the Dec. 6 nighttime vigil.
Rosool referred to Mandela as a “Gentle Giant,” despite his diminutive stature and the “Father of Africa,” saying he helped millions of people not only in Africa but around the world to come together for the cause of justice.
The group sang a call-and-response style song called “Shosholoza," a Ndebele folk song which originated in Zimbabwe but is popular in South Africa among mine workers and others. Shosholoza means “let's come together.”
The Rev. Dr. Bernard Richardson of Howard University, where a photo exhibit of Mandela is on display, delivered the benediction. In celebration of the civil rights icon, Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center is hosting a photographic exhibit entitled “Nelson Mandela: Character, Comrade, Leader, Prisoner, Negotiator, Statesman” through April 27, 2014. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit http://library.howard.edu/msrc_mandela_exhibit.
The South African Embassy vigils will continue nightly through Dec. 10. The books of condolence are available for signing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Dec. 12, officials said.
A memorial service for Mandela will be held at the National Cathedral at 11 a.m. on Dec. 11.
A book of condolence is also available for signing at the National Museum of African Art in D.C.