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  • December 13, 2013

Brent Stirton: A Native Son’s Ode To Nelson Mandela

I am a South African who lives abroad, based in a place far from my own country. They say you carry your land in your heart, but it’s not true—you forget what makes your country unique if you spend too much time away.

I experienced that with bittersweet clarity this week, watching an endless flow of united South Africans make their way to places of tribute all over this land. Determined people traveling to ensure that they paid respects to a man they call the father of our nation, the man who pioneered the new patriotism in this unique country. It was enchanting—people of every shade and persuasion making their way to these points to ensure a last, lingering connection to the unifier that was Nelson Mandela.

Crowds pay tribute to Nelson Mandela outside his Johannesburg home on Dec. 7. Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in jail for his activism against apartheid in a racially-divided South Africa.
Crowds pay tribute to Nelson Mandela outside his Johannesburg home on Dec. 7. Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in jail for his activism against apartheid in a racially-divided South Africa.

We have not witnessed a massive outpouring of grief but rather a celebration of a remarkable life. There’s dancing and singing—people experience grief differently here, suffering is routine and its given Africans the greatest capacity for happiness on earth. They are dealing with Mandela’s departure through the channel they know best. It’s appropriate, and he would have been dancing with them. At first I struggled with this, constantly looking for an image of appropriate weight, but I realized that’s in my outsider’s heart, not in the hearts of the people who saw their best selves in this man.

On the subject of photography and spirit—I arrived in Soweto and the first photographer I saw was Joao Silva. Silva is a famous NY Times war photographer who lost his legs in Afghanistan to a landmine blast three years ago. There he was, standing on his prosthetics, doing his job amidst the heaving crowd.

This country can be very humbling.

African Christians say prayers on a hilltop overlooking Johannesburg, on Dec. 7.
African Christians say prayers on a hilltop overlooking Johannesburg, on Dec. 7.

Nelson Mandela made many great speeches but the immortal words he burnt into my brain spoke of how people had no right to be less than all that they are—that your light needed to shine as brightly as it could so that you might illuminate the way for others to follow. I was thinking of that when I photographed three Zimbabwean men saying prayers for Mandela on a hilltop overlooking Johannesburg. They told me how they wished Mugabe could be more like Mandela. Their ruined land meant they they had no choice but to make their own long walk to South Africa to survive. That brought to mind Mandela’s most famous quote, the words he used when he stood in the dock at the Rivonia trial testifying for his life.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”—Nelson Mandela

 The real tragedy is that he was not released as a younger man. Who knows what a man like Mandela could have done with those extra years? The specter of the Cold War loomed large in the state of geo-politics at the time: The wars in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique; the war of independence in Zimbabwe; behind it all, the ghost of capitalism versus communism. How petty it all seems now, when you see what one man could achieve when he tapped into what exists in all of us, that element of being commonly human.

VIP's wait their turn to speak at an ANC rally paying tribute to Nelson Mandela on Dec. 8, in Johannesburg.
VIP’s wait their turn to speak at an ANC rally paying tribute to Nelson Mandela on Dec. 8, in Johannesburg.

At his memorial service at FNB stadium people walked for miles and then sat in the pouring rain to commemorate his life and feel their own place in history. When current South African president Jacob Zuma appeared, the crowd booed him as one. They continued to boo whenever his face appeared on the screens around the stadium. Only when Bishop Tutu scolded them did they calm down. There is the matter of Zuma’s house—costing more than $20 million— funded by taxpayer’s money in another splash of inappropriate opulence. Mandela’s own home in Houghton cost less than $600,000 at time of purchase but Mandela’s  thinking has not reached many of South Africa’s power players. Upon seeing Zuma, a man in the crowd shouted in my ear, “We have swapped one elite for another.”

How refreshing to hear Obama’s voice echo in that stadium and to see the crowd fall respectfully silent. He opened with the following:

“To the people of South Africa—people of every race and walk of life—the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy, is his cherished legacy.”—Barack Obama

People lay flowers in Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg as they pay respect to the former president on Dec. 8.
People lay flowers in Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg as they pay respect to the former president on Dec. 8.

 The crowd watched Obama like they were watching a younger Mandela, sensing that they were witnessing that most rare of things—a great statesman in the act of praising another great statesman. It seems we have had precious few of those. Mandela’s widow Graca Machel sat quietly amongst the dignitaries. This remarkable woman has lost not one, but two legendary freedom fighters. She now finds herself on the margins of the Mandela machine. As the man becomes a brand, I found myself feeling great empathy for her. I’d like to think she took comfort looking out at a country unified beyond race and class by the intentional life of Nelson Mandela. Surely his, if any, was a life well lived.

Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images. View more work on his website and watch a video interview on Proof.

Read more on Proof:  A Conversation with Nick Nichols and Brent Stirton

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mary Jones
    January 5, 2014

    Thank you Mr Stirton for sharing. I subscribe to the Magazine and I really do hope the Editors include this Proof article. It is a deserving, sincere and touching ode to Mr Mandela and reflects sentiments that I have not read elsewhere.

  2. ravichandran
    December 27, 2013

    in d world always we remembering few people only, like gandhi, mandela …

  3. godfrey
    December 24, 2013

    he was a modeling idol of future leadership

  4. Flor Yanez
    December 23, 2013

    The article is wonderful, thank you for sharing,

  5. Nancy Smith
    December 21, 2013

    thank you for your picture,,,
    Nelson Mandela is a great man

  6. zulema elena casariego caranti
    December 20, 2013

    Anima e cuore. Luz en la conciecia de lahumandad y en la tiera de este mundo.
    Ohh Dios,

  7. Monika Kitz
    December 17, 2013

    We can keep his thoughts alive. Thank you for writing this.

  8. Tico Poplak
    December 17, 2013

    It was indeed an unforgettable week! But what now?

  9. Janice
    December 16, 2013

    I was in South Africa when Mandela died and Cape Town was just waking up to the news. It was really palpable to feel the way people were reacting to his passing although it was only the first day. Thanks Brent for the wonderful pictures.

  10. KOFI ANSAH
    December 16, 2013

    I SHARE 18TH JULY BIRTH DATE WITH MANDELA AND HAVE GROWN TO ADMIRE HIM.HE IS MY MENTOR.

  11. Lynn Harding
    December 16, 2013

    A very well-written article echoing the sentiments of all South Africans. It seems to me that in every age a special human being comes along who is destined from birth to do great things. South Africa is blessed to have had Nelson Mandela as our icon and father – a man for all people and a leader who was the servant of his people. Thank you for your sacrifice for us all.
    Rest in Peace, Madiba.

  12. Jawed Ahmad
    December 15, 2013

    My tribute to great leader who fought the humanity! You’ll always reside our heart! And also thanks to Brent for your work and sharing this photos and article!

  13. Abel de Carvalho
    December 15, 2013

    Your sentiments echo those of the millions in South Africa of all colours, creeds and nationalities. The tribute to the Father of our nation was a moving tribute. Rest in Peace Tata Mandela. Viva Mandela Viva,l you will live in our hearts forever.

  14. Sarah Kaminski
    December 15, 2013

    Beautiful Brent! Thank you from an old school friend, you would’ve known me as Sarah Castle

  15. James Kemoh
    December 15, 2013

    A powerful tribute to country and heaven sent person.

  16. Linda
    December 14, 2013

    Lovely!!

  17. Blanca Pinon
    December 14, 2013

    A poignant tribute … thanks for sharing.

  18. fatima
    December 14, 2013

    Thank u Brent for your perspective on South Africans showing their grief & love for the iconic Nelson Mandela who will live on in the hearts & minds of people throughout the world.

  19. Fanni Simmons
    December 14, 2013

    I was fortunate to hear Mr. Mandela in Atlanta, Ga! He was a remarkable man!

  20. Mike Hills
    December 14, 2013

    Nelson Mandela was a man that had greatness thrust upon him. Men like him travel through life doing what has to be done and when they get to the end of their road they look back and see what they had accomplished and didn’t realize how great their actions were while doing it. But the World seen their greatness but they see them selves as just a Man doing what was needed to give their children a better world to raise their children in. Nelson Mandela is one of those men and we are all better off because he Lived.

  21. Pat O”Neal
    December 14, 2013

    A great article – - enjoyed very much.

  22. Tek bdr kadariya
    December 14, 2013

    Very very nice pic

  23. cathrina c h izobs
    December 14, 2013

    thank you mandiba nelson mandela for an amazing legacy,we adore and love you!tata mandiba r.i.p

  24. Susan
    December 14, 2013

    Thanks – a keeper!

  25. martin sedze
    December 14, 2013

    thanx Bret….rest in peace Nelson Mandela….

  26. manuel muñoz herrero
    December 14, 2013

    No hay palabra que defina el sentimiento de un pueblo y de muchos de nosotros, gracias a el señor Brent por ese testimonio oral y gráfico.

  27. Nikki Moulton
    December 14, 2013

    Beautiful pictures and beautiful words!

  28. Sarah Leen
    December 13, 2013

    Lovely. Thank you so much Brent for sharing your words and photographs with us.

  29. Michael Langford
    December 13, 2013

    Wonderful article & very heartfelt as a South African living in Peru. Thank you Brent.

  30. Fátima Pedro
    December 13, 2013

    We’ll never forget

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