South Africans draw from Mandela’s strength, perseverance

December 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF:  A short time ago, I spoke with Lydia Polgreen, Johannesburg bureau chief for The New York Times. 

Lydia Polgreen, thank you for talking with us. 

LYDIA POLGREEN, The New York Times:  My pleasure, Judy. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  How are South Africans reacting today to Mandela’s death?  Are — are they all, black and white, united in their view of him? 

LYDIA POLGREEN:  Overwhelmingly, I would say yes. 

Today, I was outside his home in Houghton, which is an upscale suburb of Johannesburg.  And there were not just black and white.  There were, you know, yarmulkes and sort of Muslim knitted prayer caps.  There were young and old, people from a whole variety of walks of life all over South Africa. 

So what I’m seeing is a real kind of coming together of the rainbow nation.  And when you talk to people, you get the sense that they feel very glad to have this opportunity to kind of remembrance and reassert that identity that was so strong when Nelson Mandela first became president in 1994. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  You write today that South Africans were coming together to mourn his death in a way that you said seems increasingly rare in a nation confronting significant economic challenges. 

You also wrote about political corruption and a sense that the nation is even slipping into despair.  What were you saying there? 

LYDIA POLGREEN:  Well, I think South Africa has seen enormous challenges since 1994. 

It’s a country that was reborn with tremendous hope when Nelson Mandela was elected.  And I think you have seen quite a bit of that hope whittled away.  It’s one of the most unequal country in the world.  Crime remains an endemic problem.  The education system is riddled with — with problems. 

And you also see that there is an increasing public corruption.  So the current president has been involved in a huge scandal involving his private home.  So people look to Nelson Mandela and think there was a leader, there was someone with real integrity.  So I think that this is a moment for people to look back and reflect on where they have come from and how to get back on the right path. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And also, by definition, losing what I think you call the moral center for the country. 

LYDIA POLGREEN:  Well, I think, for many people, Nelson Mandela does represent a kind of moral center and a choice to turn away from violence, to turn away from strife, and to turn away from racial divisions, and, instead of standing in judgment of one another, to reconcile and to admit that we did terrible things to each other, but now we’re ready to move on. 

And I think that was the great gift of Nelson Mandela, that he was able to bring people together in a way that made them feel that they could forgive and move on. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Lydia, one other thing.  You wrote today in a personal way about what he’s meant to you in life and in death.  Can you reflect on that? 


My mother comes from Ethiopia, and my father is American.  I spent most of my childhood in Africa, mostly in the 1980s, a time when South Africa was a country that we couldn’t even visit as a result of the composition of my family. 

And so, today, as a correspondent in South Africa, living freely in a nonracial country where anyone can marry anyone they want, where anyone can live anywhere they want, it’s an extraordinary feeling for me, particularly since I, myself, am in a multiracial relationship.  So it’s a real transformation for South Africa.  And I think it’s a real inspiration to the world. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Lydia Polgreen with The New York Times, thank you very much. 

LYDIA POLGREEN:  Thank you.