South Africans Mourn Mandela's Death, Celebrate His Life

South Africa is in deep sadness following the death of former President Nelson Mandela. He died Thursday at the age of 95 following a lengthy illness. Renee Montagne talks to Lydia Polgreen, the Johannesburg bureau chief for The New York Times, about Mandela's death.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This is what it sounded like this morning, outside the home of Nelson Mandela.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

MONTAGNE: South Africans had gathered last night to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, as much as to mourn his death yesterday, at the age of 95. The passing of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, beloved as an international hero, is also resonating around the globe. We're going to be covering that throughout this morning.

We begin, though, where his political struggle began - in Johannesburg; joined by New York Times Johannesburg bureau chief Lydia Polgreen. Good morning.

LYDIA POLGREEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So the moment has come that South Africa - and actually, many of us - had been bracing for, ever since Mandela took ill last June. Tell us more about what we were just hearing, South Africans coming together in really both grief and joy.

POLGREEN: Yes. It was extraordinary last night. I was in front of the home where Mandela lived for many years. It was actually an unseasonably chilly morning. Everyone just wanted to joyfully praise the name of Nelson Mandela. So there was a lot of, you know, "Viva, Mandela!" and singing the old songs of the struggle, the struggle that he helped win. So it was a joyful moment, tinged around the edges with sadness; but also the knowledge that he lived a long and good life, and that he's gone on to his reward.

MONTAGNE: Remind us of what he meant to his nation because this experience of his death, so different from the passing - I think, really, you can say - of other former heads of states.

POLGREEN: That's right. I mean, I think that when people called Nelson Mandela the "Father of the Nation," that's not an exaggeration. He was really the central figure who created a country out of the ruins of a horrific and brutal racial segregation system called apartheid. And when he came out of prison without any bitterness in his heart, and negotiated an end to that system of racial rule that embraced all South Africans regardless of race, he really created something that the world has not seen. And so I think there's a feeling of loss that the person who personified that ideal has passed.

MONTAGNE: What about for the rest of Africa - because you have traveled and reported on the continent elsewhere.

POLGREEN: That's right. For the rest of Africa, Nelson Mandela remains the gold standard of leadership. I mean, remember, we're talking about a continent where many presidents have clung onto power long past their sell-by date. You look just in neighboring Zimbabwe; Robert Mugabe has been in power for more than 30 years. So the powerful example that Nelson Mandela set by stepping down after a single term as president and handing over to a democratic process that has continued - essentially - flawlessly since then, is something that people all over Africa point to and aspire to.

MONTAGNE: The funeral is planned. What can we expect?

POLGREEN: You'd have to go back to the funeral of Winston Churchill to imagine an event of such global importance and significance. Nelson Mandela is universally beloved, so you're going to see pretty much every leader in the world - every living United States president; you know, a huge delegation from Congress; and then multiply that by every country in the world. But then on top of that, you'll also have ordinary South Africans from across the country. One can't help but think back to that day in 1994, when South Africans lined up in their millions to cast their votes for Nelson Mandela. So it's a fitting bookend to his life, that they would line up once again to pay their final respects to him.

MONTAGNE: And just one last thing: When you heard the news last night yourself, was there one moment that came to your mind, that gets to the essence of what Mandela's life meant?

POLGREEN: You know, I actually spent most of my childhood in Africa - in Kenya and in Ghana. My mother is from Ethiopia, and my father is American. And growing up as a biracial kid, we had a very keen sense of how frightening - and how alien - South Africa was in the 1980s. We couldn't go there as a family. So now that I live in South Africa myself, in an interracial relationship, you know, it's an extraordinary tribute to this man's life that a person like myself - and many others like me - can live in freedom.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

POLGREEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That was Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times, speaking to us from Johannesburg.

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