A ‘Rainbow Nation’ Celebrates Mandela

In a national day of remembrance, South Africans of every color congregated for prayer and reflection on whether the country has lived up to the leader's legacy

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Jonathan Torgovnik / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

Residents of Westdene neighborhood organized a memorial for Nelson Mandela as South Africans observe a national day of prayer for Nelson Mandela, Dec. 8, 2013 in Westdene, Johannesburg.

Disasters tend to be loud and bloody, but success is often quiet — the absence of fighting, the want of an uproar, a lack of fuss. On Sunday, as South Africa came together in a national day of remembrance of Nelson Mandela, his legacy was manifest in the orderly assembly of every color in Africa at a thousand churches, mosques, synagogues and halls.

At St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town — where Desmond Tutu once led his congregation in protest against apartheid and blacks staged hunger strikes against their eviction from the city, and a short walk from where Mandela vowed to fight on for the ideal of equality in his first speech as a free man after 27 years in jail — the “rainbow nation” came together in the pews. A blond girl with a giant rose tattoo on both her shoulders prayed next to a smartly dressed, young black woman in a black suit and an old toothless brown-skinned man in a dirty baseball cap. Behind them a white surfer boy in an African print shirt put his arm around a barefoot, brown-skinned maid in a Superman T-shirt, while next to them a middle-aged white father played with his two black twins. “We have lived in a great time,” said Dean Michael Weeder in his sermon. “Madiba was more than an individual soul. He was the exposition of the African spirit of generosity. He was a martyr to the better possibilities of our humanity. The spear has fallen. So we embrace it, and carry it forward.”

The need to follow Mandela’s example, and the failure by South Africa’s current scandal-prone administration to do so under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, was a recurrent theme of the day. In front of the steps of Cape Town city hall, where Mandela addressed the crowds on his release on Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela’s former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel told a crowd of a few hundred: “If there is one thing about his values that we must take forward, it is about the distance between our people.” Cape Town, Manuel said, “represents an amazing tolerance … what Mandela struggled for.” Asked later whether South Africa had lived up to Mandela’s legacy, he replied, “We have our example of how to be. So we’ve kind of run out of excuses.”

At a synagogue in Johannesburg, Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, went further. “We should celebrate his life, but I don’t think we should end there,” he told the congregation. “We should ask ourselves: What did he stand for? How loyal are we to the values that Nelson Mandela represented? Do these values continue to inspire the manner in which we act?” To celebrate his life, said Mbeki, “we need to ask ourselves a question about the quality of leadership. To what extent are we measuring up to the standard he set? Do we have the quality of leadership such as was exemplified by Mandela? What is it that we do to ensure we do not betray this noble legacy?”

The clearest evidence of how, 20 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa has failed to narrow its divides is the millions of black South Africans who continue to live in the same tin-roof, clapper-board townships as under apartheid. Many now have schools, running water and some state income subsidies. But in poorer provinces like the Eastern Cape, unemployment reaches 70% and poverty 88%, murder and rape are endemic and in some townships a third of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS.

Little has changed too on the Cape Flats, the sprawling township of more than 2 million on the estuary sands east of Cape Town. There, on Sunday, in the True Faith evangelical church — a holed and muddy tent pitched on sand in the township of Khayelitsha — 200 blacks celebrated Mandela’s life with singing, dancing and a chorus of hallelujahs. “People thought he would come and ask for revenge,” said Luvuyo Damane, 32, who polishes fiberglass finishes in one of Cape Town’s boatyards. “But out of prison, he preached peace and forgiveness. And that gave us freedom.” Was that enough, I asked? Had his life changed enough? Damane didn’t want to mar the day. “We loved him,” he said.