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The Day I met a Madiba Angel

December 31, 2013

We find ourselves at the final exhale of 2013 now, what a year it has been. It felt fitting to make my last post of the year about my journey to pay final respects to Madiba as his body lay in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. This is a story that begins with a journey but is about the connections we make along the way. It’s about fellow travellers we meet on the path. They share our quests even as they make their own footprints. And it’s about how the final destination surprises us more often than not – and that’s a good thing.


It was the first day of the three days set aside for ordinary South Africans to file past the coffin of our fallen giant, when I got the call from friends. It was a little after midday.

“Want to go to the Union Building to pay our respects?” the question came down the line. There would be four of us and the plan would be get from The Star building in Sauer Street in downtown Jozi to Park Station, catch the Gautrain to Pretoria and walk about 3km from the station up to the arch of the Herbert Baker building that is the seat of government.

Yes, I wanted to be part of this momentous quest. With a bit of haste and good luck we would beat the clock, the weather of moody distant Highveld thunderclouds, the queues and even the no food and drink rule on the Gautrain to make a silent bow at our president’s coffin, as I wanted to do.

We four had what we needed for the journey: bottles of water, rain gear, shoes to pound the Pretoria tarmac, sunscreen and my expired (yes they expire) Gautrain card revived with enough money to make the 40-minute up North from Jozi.

We arrived in Pretoria, hopped of the train and were pointed in the direction of a bus. As the bus pulled out of the station we hit our first snag. The conductor came round to us and said the bus would not be going near the Union Buildings. Everyone who was making the trip to pay respects had to make it to the showgrounds first. The showgrounds was one of about three locations where the public could be “screened” and then bused off to the Union Buildings. We couldn’t simply do our 3km hike up the hill, we were told. Our bus though was not headed near the showgrounds and we had to get off at Church Square, in the centre of the city.

It was virtually everyone on the bus who got out, because we all had the same idea that day to get to the Union Buildings. Now we Joburgers were stranded and a little confused without our cars and GPSes. But that’s when Angel Mpho took us under her wing. Mpho had been sitting at the front of the bus. She had an ANC bid on and was a volunteer looking to help the crowds she knew would descend upon Pretoria. “My name’s Mpho, but everyone calls me Angel Mpho”, she joked.

“Okay let’s go,” she said, a little uncertain herself, but unfazed because she knew that this could not be the end of the quest for all us. We clotted around her on the pavement, making suggestions, thinking through some options.

“I’m just going to hijack this bus,” Mpho said, frustrated. Church Square filled with Oom Paul’s brooding gaze, marquees, TV screens and people milling around catching glimpses of the coverage of Madiba’s passing could offer no help for our quest.

Mpho did flag down a bus, half demanding it to take us to the showgrounds, but the bus was on a schedule and it wasn’t ours. We waited around a few more minutes but then Mpho had enough of waiting. She marched up to a group of taxi drivers seeking shade under the awning of the public men’s toilet. She did some negotiating. The man was not about to take us in his taxi and anyway we would need two taxis and he wanted R12 a passenger because he also had a route – to Attridgeville, not the showgrounds – that he had to keep to.

Mpho worked her magic. She even negotiated him down to R6 a passenger and she convinced him we only need one taxi. So the driver, 21 passengers and a stick-on Garfield stuffed toy jammed into the taxi. I sat on S’s lap, another guy was squeezed into the wheel well, someone else wedged himself into the space just behind the front seats, facing the back of the taxi where there was a peeling sign that read “Certified to carry 14 passengers”. Angel Mpho was part standing, part stooping between the door and a row of seats.

Here we were a busload of all sorts of strangers on the same journey. Some people had never been in a taxi before – never had reason to be in with their middle-class comfort of having private vehicle. Among us were Aunty Joyce with a faded dyed perm and serious bling on her fingers, a Bryanston pastor who looked more ageing country rock chick than clergy, Sechaba “the IT guy” because he Googled where we should be headed, two colleagues who had moved their appointments around so they could squeeze in a trip to the Union Buildings, two teens with a Mandela T-shirt that said “Freedom” on it.

Madiba’s body would not be transported after sunset. His spirit guided by the voice of his living relatives could wander off in the dark. We had to hurry as the clock ticked past 3pm and the sun dipped below the tallest buildings. We cheered our taxi on, screaming at other cars cutting in front of us. We had to get into a queue soon because the cut-off at the Union Buildings was 5.30pm. Now the taxi driver got into the mood of our quest. He turned up the volume on Harold Melvin’s version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and the whole taxi, yes the whole taxi, rocked in union as the chorus was belted out ….” aaaaaaah baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you, so come on darling and do what you’ve got to do …” The taxi driver played the song twice.

We weren’t making too much headway though he though we knew we had to “do what we had to do”. Gridlock in the capital city had set in. We were crawling now trying to cut through lanes. Eventually the driver told us we’d have to get out and walk the last few hundred metres to the showground entrance.

“Ok let’s get out here, careful of the traffic,” Mpho shouted, taking responsibility for us again as we filed out of the taxi into the middle of rush hour traffic.

We walked briskly past people selling bananas, sweets, cooldrinks and everything Madiba as we made our way to the showground entrance. We pushed forward and could see thousands of other who had made the same trip. Little did we know then that some had woken up in the early hours of that morning to secure a spot in the queue. Over the next two days, hundreds of thousands more would do the same.

Mpho was in the front again, talking to a guard, we had to get into the queue, we had come so far. But when she turned around to face us her smile was gone.

“I’m sorry guys they’re not letting in anymore people. We’re going to have to try again tomorrow”.

Now we were joined in disappointment, reflecting on a pavement again we knew we would not be able to say the goodbye we wanted to say. Angel Mpho urged us to come back again the next day, she would be back volunteering again. She also intended heading down to Qunu for the funeral with busloads of her fellow ANC comrades. A few people said they would try again thinking about how early they could wake up, but yes, they would try again. I knew I wouldn’t getting a second shot at saying goodbye. This was the end of the quest of me as I asked for asked everyone to squeeze together for a photograph.

Mpho flagged down another bus, commandeered it to take us back to the Gautrain. Crestfallen we filed back onto the bus, each traffic light putting us further from the Union Buildings. Madiba deserved this, this impossible demand, this profound longing each one of us had for a personal tribute.

As I got off the bus I hugged Mpho, thanking her for taking us under her wing for making a plan and bringing together a group of strangers for a quest that joined us together for a few short hours. We failed in our quest, we never got near the Union Buildings.

“Thank you for everything Mpho. It’s up to you now, please take my final respects to Madiba for me,” I said.

She hugged me back and said: “I already have”.

My quest would be fulfilled after all, I just had to surrender it to the hands of an angel.







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