I almost missed him.
Arriving more than an hour before the procession was to begin, I drove around looking for parking several blocks from the procession route, but all was cordoned off by security and police. One police officer saw my camera and tried directing me to a bus for media, but since I didn’t apply for a media permit, I was pretty sure my camera alone wouldn’t get me very far.
I kept driving away from the blockades until I found a spot and parked my car. It was about 1.5km walk through central Pretoria. Carrying only my camera and wearing my “We Love You Madiba!” t-shirt that I bought at Houghton on Sunday, I received a lot of stares from people going about the start of their workday. Some smiled and gave the thumbs up, said hello, or something in another language with the name “Madiba” at the end and big grins. One young man even fist-bumped me when he saw the shirt, and whooped a loud “Madiba!” A couple of women glared at me and I found myself doubting whether I had any right to wear the shirt. I smiled and hoped they saw sincerity and respect.
I finally made it to the route and found a corner that seemed pretty empty, looked for a high spot (a two-story parking lot did the trick) and settled in to wait.
As people began to fill in the spaces lining the wall where I stood, and the crowd grew on the street below, I met a gentleman on my left named Royal, from KwaZulu Natal, and another on my right, named Mike, who is a Pedi living north of Pretoria. While we waited, we swapped procession updates that we had from either online media or from loved ones texting us.
Around 7:45 the procession finally came through. A couple motorcycle cops came through ahead of the group, and gave a thumbs up to the crowd, indicating Mandela was on his way through. The crowd let out a loud cheer and necks craned toward the helicopter that appeared over the street, then toward the blue lights flashing in the distance.
I felt a body or two pressing against me as I leaned far out over the wall trying to snap photos. I wondered for a moment if we would all topple to the street in our urgency to see him.
A woman’s voice in my ear reassured me she wouldn’t let me fall, and I could feel the pressure of her weight, and her arms at my waist as we all leaned out together.
The procession was on us in a flash. A roar of motorbikes came first, and as I saw the long line of cars behind them, I thought it would begin with a procession of dignitaries, with Mandela at the very end, in some kind of open car, or maybe even a carriage.
So as the motorbikes passed me, I began looking toward the end of the line, thinking that these bikes marked only the beginning of a long line that would slow as his body passed.
I was so wrong that I almost missed him.
I should have known from the roar of the crowd below me that they had already spotted him: their hero; their leader; their father; their friend. Immediately behind the motorbikes, in a large black van, was a casket draped in the South African flag, holding the body of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
I barely had time to register that his body was in the van before it had already passed. Thankfully I caught it in the photos I was taking of the motorcade preceding him, and another as the van whisked him away toward the Union Building.
As soon as it began, it was over. Royal from KwaZulu Natal had already disappeared into the crowd, and Mike was headed back to his office. The crowd was more celebratory than sad around me, and what tears there were mingled with more ululating and singing. The flags didn’t stop waving as the gates parted to let people cross Madiba Street, and I stayed for a moment longer, stunned that the procession was over so quickly.
I walked back to my car, grateful I am here in South Africa, grateful I was able to witness the procession, and hopeful that I would come away with at least one photo to share with all of you.
Thanks, always, for reading and sharing in my travels, friends.