A mourner laying flowers in memory of Nelson Mandela outside South Africa House, central London
Last night, it was announced that Nelson Mandela had died. Instead of languishing in front of a laptop and watching a fusion of celebrity tributes and people talking about how David Cameron secretly wished Madiba had died in a noose roll through on Twitter, I headed into central London to speak to those who'd travelled to South Africa House to pay their respects.
When I arrived, there were about 20 to 30 people laying flowers outside the High Commission building in Trafalgar Square. Apart from a few weeping people, the crowd who'd gathered to pay their respects to the greatest statesman of the 20th century was largely silent. I spoke to a few of them to find out why they had come along to stand in silence for South Africa's first black president.
VICE: So why’d you come down here today, Celino?
Celino Gomez, from São Tomé, living in London: The death of this great man… this great leader… this… [long pause] I could even say demi-god, y’know? Among humans. He was a man of great faith. He inspired so many people.
Do you think he's the most important African to have ever lived?
Of all time?
Probably of all time. His ideas changed the world. Mandela was in prison for 27 years, then when he was released he talked about reconciliation and forgetting your enemy… [sigh]… that’s not human. That’s more than a man, and I think that this message is important to us, especially in Africa where even today there’s so much conflict. I think we have to focus on this message.
Yeah, I think I’d be pretty bitter after spending 27 years in prison.
He came out of prison with a smile! Dancing! That means a lot… if he can forget his enemies, all of us can do the same.
VICE: So what brings you here on this cold December night?
Vincent, "age irrelevant", from Brixton: A huge amount of respect for Nelson Mandela and the way he acted as a person and a leader. Also, over the years, although I didn’t give my age, I was involved with the anti-Apartheid movement. Even though it might not look like that.
So his death has a real personal significance for you?
It’s more than personal. I think the guy was, if you look at all our politicians today – our Obamas, our Clintons, our Camerons – when you look for a political leader… There is a lot of darkness. [Mandela] will shine a light on hate in the future. And this isn’t just about politicians; it’s about us as people, about you as a journalist, about me as a guy who works in business.
What do you think will be his most enduring legacy?
The fact that he preached reconciliation, truth and compassion. He taught people not to hate and if they had been hated to not hate back. There’s not many guys around like that. He’s a bigger person than me, and you. He gives us something to aspire to and we aren’t going to achieve it as individuals.
Do you think that in his quest to unite everyone, he sometimes gave the impression of being too close to terrible people, such as those who kept him in prison for 27 years and dictators like Gaddafi?
Mandela was, in his presidency, trying to develop an understanding across Africa. With [his relationship with] Gaddafi, for example, he was a statesman trying to reach out to people. That’s not a criticism of Mandela, but it would certainly be a criticism of Tony Blair. He reached out to Gaddafi much more than Mandela did.
And blew up a lot more Iraqis by proxy. Thanks, Vincent.
Alex, who was playing "Amazing Grace" on his bagpipes when I turned up.
VICE: That was pretty surreal, Alex.
Alex, 28, from Glasgow, living in London: Well, I was having a few drinks around the corner, then I saw about Nelson Mandela’s death on the TV screen and I thought, 'That’s quite a big deal.' To be honest, I completely forgot the embassy was right here. I was walking to my bus and thought, 'Well, what better way to pay my respects than get my 'pipes out?'
People were singing "Amazing Grace" before you arrived, so for a second I thought Scotland had sent a piper as a show of respect.
I didn’t expect everyone to sing along with me, but it’s one of those tunes that everyone knows and it’s quite a fitting tribute to Nelson Mandela.
Yeah. So what was your first reaction to the news? What does it mean to you personally?
Well, to be honest, I knew he was getting on a bit, but I didn’t realise he was 95 years old. He didn’t look it, that’s for sure. But as a person, to be in prison for what? 20 years? Prison’s a rough ride, even in the best of places, never mind Apartheid-era South Africa. But to come out of that and have the mentality and the motivation to lead people and say, "Yeah, follow me" – that’s quite a thing to do. Psychologically, to have that kind of power, that kind of strength… it’s quite amazing.
VICE: Why are you here tonight, Noa?
Noa-Dumbeya, from West Africa, living in Peckham: I have read books about Nelson Mandela. I have also seen him, so I am here to mourn this wonderful loss in human history. It has changed my life forever. I received the news on my phone and immediately I refused to accept the truth that it had happened. I knew I had to travel to central London to see it – to see that it’s real, that it’s non-fiction. It troubles me. Who will be the next hero? Is it Obama?
I'm pretty certain there are some drone-ravaged Pakistani communities who would argue that it isn't Obama.
Yes, but Obama is more-or-less a politician. Mandela is a global patriot. The distinction between him and Obama is too wide. This is why I had to travel to central London! I will not sleep tonight!
Were you not kind of prepared for his death?
No, no, no. Of course he should depart from Earth, but at his age – 95 years young! There are people who don’t have the opportunity like him who live up to 120 years, so why does Mandela have to go now? I’m concerned. I’ve picked up some of my clothes and come to sleep here and mourn.
How long are you going to stay?
As long as it takes!
As long as what takes?
Because of the great loss! Until I can come to terms with my life, I cannot sleep. I bought a bus pass straight away to come here. I want to go into the embassy to confirm from them that the man is sleeping, but I don’t want anyone to tell me he is dead. He is sleeping; simple. Sleeping forever. But I don’t want anyone to tell me he’s dead – it will traumatise me more.
There aren't many people here mourning. Why do you think that is?
People just don't know yet. Even 20 minutes ago, I didn't know. But I couldn’t call my friends to tell them what happened – I had to travel alone. Tomorrow word will spread and there will be huge crowds here and all over the world. The passing of Mandela is a crime against humanity – to slip away without letting him say goodbye. I just hope God will be on his side.
He did some pretty decent stuff in his lifetime, so he should be alright. Thanks, Noa.
VICE: How are you taking the news, MC Emix?
MC Emix, from Planet Earth: Well, I say it’s sad news, but really and truly it’s a blessing for him. It’s been coming a long time and I’m glad his suffering is over. But what I’m saying is, this man here, for all that he’s done and his conviction to remain peaceful, is exemplary. I don’t see too many people here and I don’t think they realise what he’s done for humanity. I was sad when I heard the news, but when I actually consider what he’s done I can only rejoice, because there are people in South Africa who are standing up because they’re free. And if it weren’t for him, they wouldn’t be. I’m here to say thanks.
I’m surprised to see so few people here.
I would say I'm surprised, but I’m not. When he was set free from prison, I was in a nightclub, but afterwards I came down here. I came down alone because many others would not follow. Those who come, I’m grateful to see them. But those who don’t, I think they need to wake up. Sadly a lot of people disassociate with things and only get involved when they’re affected. That’s a sad point for people today. I don’t need to be affected; I just need to show understanding. Back in the 80s there was always people down here – there were always people with something to say. Where are those people now?
What do you think is different now?
Well, maybe back in them days it was on, so people came down. But I had to ask: "Did you come here to say you were here and that you did this? Or do you actually believe in what you’re doing?" When he was set free – yes, you had people coming down, but that fizzled out real quickly; they didn’t feel like they had anything to do any more. Mandela still had a really big job to do. He had a hard fight but maintained his peaceful motive all the way.
How do you feel about David Cameron’s mournful tweet, when his idol Thatcher was an enemy of Mandela?
Cameron was guilty of handing out leaflets that Mandela was a terrorist! [The Prime Minister has been linked to the organisation that made "Hang Mandela" posters in the 80s, though it's not been proven he was a member.] Cameron had a child who was disabled. Look at what he’s doing to those people today – his son must be rolling in his grave. Cameron is not a nice man. A hypocrite. I’ve got nothing nice to say about him and I’d rather not waste my time because he can’t stand next to Mandela in any shape or form or fashion.
Strong words. Thanks, Emix.
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr
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