Wishing on a shooting star: Remembering Nelson Mandela

Wishing on a shooting star: Remembering Nelson Mandela

Three years ago today we got the news we all knew was coming, but none of us were ready to hear. Nelson Mandela died at his Houghton home on December 5, 2013,  surrounded by his loved ones. He was 95 years old. 

Nelson Mandela_gallo
File photo: Gallo Images

Nelson Mandela was known as the father of the nation - both here in South Africa and around the world. To some this term is a hyperbole, but to many others he was a beacon of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

In this piece I am not going to debate the validity of this term, I will simply outline my experience as a journalist at the time of his death.

In the year leading up to his death he spent many nights in hospital - with the media camped outside - taking pictures of his high profile visitors and waiting for news on his condition. Many of us practically lived outside the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria for weeks on end. 

ALSO READ: Remembering Madiba: The day SA mourned


When he celebrated his 95th birthday in hospital, it was as if South Africans knew that this might be his last. 

People from different races, nationalities and ages arrived at the gates of the hospital with flowers, letters - in some cases teddy bears to wish the old man well. It once again demonstrated how Madiba, who most of them never met, played such a personal role in many people's lives.

As the year went by there were many reports on his health, and the term "critical but stable" became part of our reporting.

On the 5th of December media houses started getting wind that those close to Mandela were heading to his Houghton home to say goodbye. As the sun started setting,  a growing number of journalists started camping on the grass opposite his house. We were soon joined by many neighbours and passers-by.

We all knew deep down that this was it - one of the biggest and most important stories many of us would ever cover. 

We saw politicians and struggle icons making their way into the house and we even spotted a man who looked like a priest driving in.

We knew what was happening, but we didn't want to accept it.

The penny finally dropped when the announcement was made that President Jacob Zuma would speak on a matter of national importance later that evening. 

We all scrambled to try and find some way to listen to the announcement, and eventually one journalist used her phone as a radio and we all huddled together to listen to the devastating news.


As Zuma started to speak someone took a picture of us. When I look at it now I can still distinctly remember how heavy the air became -  the immense sadness that washed over me as our suspicions were confirmed. 

Within the next hour the streets surrounding Madiba's house were filled with South Africans clutching flowers and candles. Strangers sang together, cried together and hugged each other. We were united in our sadness. Journalists stayed through the night and into the next morning - filing and filming as the news started to sink in.


I remember getting into my car just before 9am the next morning and leaving Mandela's house. On my way to the office I listened to the radio coverage on his death - and for the first time I had slowed down enough to realise what had happened. I cried almost all the way to the office.

The days that followed consisted of several impromptu memorials and vigils. Media hustled to get to as many of these as possible and to get accreditation for the official events.

Thousands of people lined up outside the Union Buildings to say goodbye to Mandela as he lay in state. 

Many more filed into the FNB Stadium for the memorial - which later became synonymous with sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie and Zuma being booed before an international audience.

The last leg was the official funeral in his hometown of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.


I franticly scrambled to try and get accommodation for us, then with the help of a fellow journo managed to speak to a royal descendant in the area who arranged for us to stay in a family's home close to the burial site. The long drive from Gauteng to the Eastern Cape provided much needed time for me to reflect. As I drove through the mountains in the pouring rain I mentally prepared myself for what was about to happen.

Security was tight and the area around the Mandela home was on lockdown. An enormous white tent which could be seen for kilometres was erected for the funeral service.

The night before the funeral we ate with our host family. Our 'mother' for the week decided we needed a spread fit for a king before the tough day ahead. We all tried to go to bed early, but I woke up rather abruptly just after midnight. I couldn't go  back to sleep so I went outside. I love that beautiful part of the country with its rolling hills and endless vistas. Looking at it calmed me. 


At that moment,  the brightest and biggest shooting star I have ever seen streaked across the sky. It dragged its tail towards the horizon and burnt out just above the tent. I was mesmerised.

I stood there alone in the dark with tears in my eyes, thinking how symbolically fitting this was for Tata's homecoming.

The next day was an emotional and beautiful whirlwind of songs, testimonies and tears. Everyone I saw and knew was in mourning for someone they have never met. Even so, it felt as if a family member had died. The man with the roaring smile and colourful shirt was dead and I questioned where the country would go from there. It was the end of an era. The end of the 'Madiba Magic'.


Going into 2017 we are desperately looking for another leader, another strong figure like Chris Hani, Demond Tutu or Nelson Mandela to show us what the right next step should be. 

Most countries are lucky if they get one such person in a generation. We were fortunate enough to have quite a few at the same time when we needed it most, but I wonder if that doesn't mean we have had our share for the next few years.

I hope not, I hope we have not maxed out our credit at a time when we so desperately need a light in the dark, a man or woman brave enough to stand up and fight for us. I didn't make a wish on the shooting star that night in Qunu, but now I think perhaps I should have.

Madiba famously said: "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

And I have always thought the quote was quite prophetic. He was one of a kind and knew just how to speak to our humanity.

So as we commemorate the death of our first democratic president today take a second to think about what your hopes for South Africa in 2017 are. 

Here's to hoping we can end off this dreadful year without any more unwanted surprises, deaths or controversies. Here's to hoping our leaders have the courage needed to get us out of the doldrums, and here's to hoping fortune really does favour the brave.

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