South Africa celebrates 'a life well lived' after the death of Nelson Mandela

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Journalist Bruce Whitfield from Johannesburg-based Talk Radio 702 is a Mandela expert: he met the former president and has, for the last 20 years, reported on events which saw the end of white minority rule and the transition to democracy in South Africa.

He told euronews reporter Alasdair Sandford what the atmosphere was like in the country on the day following Nelson Mandela’s death.

Bruce Whitfield, Talk Radio 702: “While South Africans today are very, very sad over the death of Nelson Mandela, the inevitability of it we have been prepared for for some time – so there is sadness, but there have also been some great symbols of great joy.

“There has been a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela outside his home in Houghton, where he died last night. There have been children laying flowers, there have been people singing songs. There has been a jubilant atmosphere of celebration of a life incredibly well lived.”

Alasdair Sandford, euronews: “Now if we look back to that period 20 years ago, even in the years after his release from prison, South Africa was close to civil war. What did Mandela do to pull the country back from the brink?”

Bruce Whitfield: “There was just one seminal moment. It was the assassination, in April 1993, of the leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani.

“Chris Hani was shot by a Polish immigrant by the name of Janusz Walus. The killing had been instigated by the leader of the then Conservative Party, a man called Clive Derby-Lewis. That killing, in the driveway of Chris Hani’s house, brought the country to the very edge of civil war.

“It was at that moment that FW de Klerk, the president at the time, stepped aside and made space on national television at eight o’clock one night for Nelson Mandela – and Nelson Mandela at that point appealed for calm.

“It was at that point that the true leadership skill of Nelson Mandela became evident. He showed that it was a white Afrikaans woman who had alerted police – she was the neighbour of Chris Hani – to his killing.

“It was that point where the tensions which had been bubbling over – where it looked like we were going to go to a fully fledged civil war – the tensions simmered down somewhat and Nelson Mandela was then able to take a country – he was not even president at the time – and he was able to take the country from the brink of civil war to a negotiated settlement.

“It was at that point where the talks about the settlement really sped up and led to the general elections in April 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela to power on that day.”

Alasdair Sandford, euronews: “And today how much has changed since he took power? What is Mandela’s legacy in South Africa today?”

Bruce Whitfield: “I can’t help but think that Nelson Mandela, through the joy of the transition, must have been somewhat disappointed about the South Africa that he leaves behind.

“South Africa is still a racially divided country. Far more integrated than it was 20 years ago, but the gap between rich and poor is far bigger than it ever was. The population has grown, but opportunities haven’t grown to the extent that Nelson Mandela would have hoped.

“The aspirations that he brought in 1994 have not been fulfilled. So the challenge for the next 20 years, of course, is to build on that legacy. And there is a sense of urgency in South Africa today, as we see great labour dissatisfaction, and the race divide in South Africa is still very prevalent. (There is a sense) that we do need to take Nelson Mandela’s legacy forward to the next two decades. It would be a pity for that legacy to go with it.”