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In South Africa, Crowds Gather To Honor Winnie Mandela

Apr 14, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has been laid to rest. Tens of thousands of people attended the emotional funeral service of the longtime anti-apartheid activist, the former wife of Nelson Mandela. So many people had to be accommodated that it was held at a stadium near her home in Soweto, South Africa. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that the sendoff, at times, resembled a political rally more than a funeral.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: We see a sea of the colors of the governing ANC party - green, yellow and black - and then, in another part of the stadium, the bright red uniforms of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters who were huge supporters of Winnie Mandela. The funeral service has begun.

(CHEERING)

QUIST-ARCTON: The 40,000-seat stadium was packed as mourners celebrated the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has taken on the status of an uncompromising national hero since she died April 2. At her official funeral service, speakers praised the woman who kept alive the memory of her imprisoned husband, Nelson Mandela. In a sometimes angry and impassioned tribute, her elder daughter Zenani Mandela-Dlamini said many critics seemed to have forgotten the sacrifices her mother made.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZENANI MANDELA-DLAMINI: As she said in her lifetime, I am the product of the messes of my country and the product of my enemy. Much of what my mother had been constantly asked to account for is simply ignored when it comes to her male counterparts. And this kind of double standard acts also to obscure the immense contribution of women to the fight for the emancipation of our country from the evil of apartheid.

(APPLAUSE)

QUIST-ARCTON: Thunderous applause greeted Julius Malema, leader of the Radical Economic Freedom Fighters party, as he rose to speak. Former head of the youth league of Madikizela-Mandela's governing African National Congress, Malema was expelled from the party but remained close to the woman he mournfully called mama. And he lashed out at those he said had let her down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIUS MALEMA: We see you in your beautiful suit. Betrayers, sellouts, we see you. Some of those who sold out to the regime are here. And what is funny, mama, is that they are crying the loudest, more than all of us who cared for you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Many ordinary South Africans, though, have chosen not to play politics. Wearing a Winnie-style head wrap that the anti-apartheid veteran made her trademark, 22-year-old student Neo Ngcobo says Madikizela-Mandela's passing has spurred a new movement called - she didn't die; she multiplied.

NEO NGCOBO: What she left us with is the spirit to fight for what we want as women, especially as young women.

QUIST-ARCTON: Neo Ngcobo's 10-year-old sister, Andisiwe, who was also wearing a Winnie-Mandela hair tie, says simply she's inspired.

ANDISIWE: I respect her and love her. Rest in peace, mama.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language).

QUIST-ARCTON: There's only one Winnie, chant the mourners. She's our rock. As the funeral service ended, thunder roared. And the skies opened above Soweto's Orlando Stadium lashing rain with what South Africans are calling showers of blessings to accompany Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on her journey to her final resting place. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Orlando Stadium, Soweto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.