Thousands of South Africans honored and mourned Nelson Mandela on Sunday with loud, raucous parades and celebrations outside the small, red brick home where he once lived.
SOWETO, South Africa – Thousands of South Africans came to this storied township on Sunday to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela with loud, raucous parades and festivities outside the small red brick home where as a young lawyer he organized the fight against white rule.
With Mandela's passing, Vilakazi Street in this overwhelmingly black township that is home to more than 1.2 million people became a magnet for South Africans on the official day of mourning declared by the government.
Families of local residents, and those who once lived in Soweto and return to renew ancestral ties, crowded in front of the home amid a circus-like atmosphere. Crowds grew larger as the day wore on and by afternoon cars jammed roads leading up a hill that was blocked to all but a few vehicles.
Papallo Molefe, 10, came from Pretoria with his mother, father and sisters to the neighborhood where they once lived and provided an eloquent explanation for how deeply Mandela remains in hearts here.
"He fought apartheid and he fought for our freedom and he made a big change in the world,'' Papallo said when asked what the late leader means to him.
His mother, Queen Molefe, said she and her husband, Leonard, brought their children to what she called "our motherhood,'' or home neighborhood, so that they might not forget the struggles that took place before them.
They wanted their kids to see the modest home where he lived as a young married man who grew into the towering figure who led the way to democratic rule that transformed lives of blacks long denied citizenship by a minority white government.
"I had to bring my kids today for this history,'' she said. "My kids are going to enjoy what is left by Mandela.''
Mandela lived in the house at 8115 Vilakazi St., now a shrine and tourist attraction, until he was sent to prison in 1963 at age 44 on charges of trying to overthrow the government. He remained in prison for 27 years, often under harsh conditions, before being released in 1990 after years of protest in South Africa and worldwide.
Upon his release he negotiated with white government officials toward an end to the racist system and free and fair elections that made him the first black president.
Many groups turned out on Sunday to stake a claim to part of Mandela's legacy, though not all shared his view of reconciliation with former oppressors.
At least one group of men waved a flag bearing a hammer and sickle, a reminder of the communist party's presence here still; another group of younger men and women called the Economic Freedom Fighters paraded and danced in red shirts, calling for more dramatic steps to raise blacks still stuck in poverty despite economic and political progress.
They were forced out by police to make way for the parade of the African National Congress, the party of Mandela and the organization that had battled for decades to end white rule. Now that white rule is gone the ANC's power is being challenged by those who say it is corrupt and not changing with the modern times.
But most were here to enjoy the sights and honor the man they call "Tata," or father.
People queued in a long line to take a look inside the home, while outside vendors hawked T-shirts, hats, flags, photo buttons and other trinkets depicting Mandela. Some sold cold beer too.
"I started selling today, and I'm doing very well,'' said Mandna Ngwenya, 33, of Soweto, who was doing brisk business selling yellow shirts bearing Mandela's picture and the words "Dankie Tata,'' or "Thank you father" in Afrikaans.
"He was a big man, a hero,'' Ngwenya said. "He inspired me.''
Conversations were difficult on the street due to the loud noise. Clubs of motorcyclists roared their engines and burned rear tires until the air turned gray with smoke in tribute to Mandela. Police, some armed with machine guns, stood by and watched, while helicopters roared overhead.
"Since he died, you don't sleep,'' said Elsie Radeve, who said she was in her 70s and lived close by. "People come here to play.''
Across the street, a restaurant did a booming lunchtime business, with locals and visitors dining outside or under a thatched roof building with a balcony from which to view the scene. People enjoyed heaping plates of beef stew, roasted chicken, a ubiquitous sausage called Boerewors and tripe laced with spicy chakalaka relish.
Moss Leoka, a technology company officer, drank white wine on the balcony in a monthly ritual of meeting with friends who, like himself, once lived in Soweto and with economic prosperity moved elsewhere. But, he said, many others decided to stay, turning the township established for workers in nearby mines into a thriving if basic residential area.
"It is one of the few townships that's kept its middle class,'' Leoka said.
The street is regarded as a historic place and very near the scene of riots in 1976, while Mandela was a prisoner at Robben Island, a dusty Alcatraz-like island prison off Capetown. Police opened fire on demonstrators, killing 23, during what is now called the Soweto Uprising. It took place in the Orlando West district, which includes his former address.
Many people brought flowers and written messages to the home, depositing them by the entrance and taped to iron bars that protect its yard.
One large hand-lettered poster-sized memorial read: "We live differently because of you. You restored our humanity and taught us how to respect each other.'' It was signed, "The Branken Family.''
Leonard Molefe, young Papallo's father, said the day was a way to help children understand how the long struggle for human rights and racial equality that Mandela represents changed the future they will live in.
"Basically, we came just to show where a beacon of hope used to stay,'' he said.