By Robyn Dixon
8:00 PM PST, December 5, 2013
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Some came in what they were wearing when they heard that Nelson Mandela had died -- their pajamas. Some draped themselves in South African flags. Others brought candles, flowers and pictures of him.
Hundreds of people gathered outside his house in the early morning Friday, in a gathering striking for the absence of weeping and tears. It was more of a spontaneous celebration of the man's life and the gifts he left South Africa.
A few vuvuzelas -- the South African trumpet normally found at football matches and celebrations -- blasted into the night. A group of candles on his lawn, united to form a small blaze, carefully watched by police.
Susan Radebe, 46, a bank administrator, cried when she heard on the late-night television news that the country's first black president had died Thursday at age 95.
"It was just unbelievable, but at the same time I was like, 'Let me let him go because it's time. I have to accept it and let him go.'"
Radebe woke her two children and they drove to Mandela's house, wearing their nightclothes.
She described a feeling many South Africans expressed Thursday, profound grief mixed with gratitude and joy for Mandela's role in liberating South Africa from apartheid and his part in ushering in a peaceful democracy.
"I'm happy that although I was deprived, he made sure that my kids got whatever I was deprived of and my parents were deprived of. That's education, health, freedom," Radebe said.
The throng outside the house sang gospel songs and struggle songs. A young white man raised his fist and shouted "Viva Madiba!" -- referring to Mandela by his clan name, in a chant from the liberation struggle meaning "Long live Madiba."
"It's a celebration, a celebration of a life well lived," Radebe said.
Poppie Malatse, 43, a businesswoman, woke her son up when she received the news by phone late Thursday. She said in African culture it was important to be with the bereaved family after someone died.
"Whenever someone passes away, you have to go and be with the family. We felt we had to be here. That's how close Nelson Mandela is to us here in South Africa. He's like family. It's how we express our sadness and our condolences."
Malatse said Mandela left a legacy of love, forgiveness and compromise in a good cause.
"Believe me, apartheid was very painful. When I look at the opportunities that my children have today, I am forever grateful to people like Mandela and (Walter) Sisulu who were able to stand up and say, 'We can't take it any more.'" (Sisulu was another leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle.)
Radebe said it would take a long time before South Africa found a leader as selfless and noble as Mandela.
"The people in power now, it's all about power and greed," she said. She believed that at the end of his life, Mandela was shielded from knowledge about corruption and disunity.
"If he had known, he would have died [sooner]. He would not have survived that. It would have been very very sad."
Radebe saw Mandela's coffin, draped in a South African flag, being borne slowly away in a black van, led by a phalanx of police motorcycles.
"It has not hit home. It's like a dream. Maybe tomorrow," she said.
The convoy left Mandela’s home shortly after 2 a.m., escorted by dozens of motorcycle officers riding in a V formation with their lights flashing.Low-flying helicopters hovered overhead as the procession pulled onto the highway to Pretoria. A handful of late-night onlookers recorded the somber moment with their cellphone cameras.
President Jacob Zuma said the nation’s flags would be lowered to half staff until after Mandela’s funeral. Mandela is expected to be buried in a private family cemetery in his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, not far from his birth village of Mvezo.
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