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A Nonstop Tribute To Nelson Mandela

They have assembled in front of the hospital by the dozens: church groups, families, even a motorcycle club, their engines revving at full throttle. Mothers encouraged their shy children to squeeze through the crowd and place a bouquet of flowers at the base of a makeshift shrine. A member of the crowd conducted an impromptu choir, inviting others to join in and sing a hymn together.

For more than a month now, throngs of well-wishers have gathered outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, praying for the health of former President Nelson Mandela.

Members of a motorcycle club visit the makeshift memorial for Mandela outside his hospital.
Andy Carvin / NPR
Members of a motorcycle club visit the makeshift memorial for Mandela outside his hospital.

Mandela, who turns 95 on July 18, was hospitalized in early June with a lingering lung ailment he first developed during the 27 years he spent in prison during the country's apartheid era. The office of South Africa's president describes Mandela's condition as critical but stable, and says that he is responding to treatment.

At the hospital entrance, people have left mementos for Mandela, many of them handwritten notes addressed to "Madiba," Mandela's clan name, or "tata," which means "father" in his native tongue, Xhosa.

Hundreds of these notes plastered the walls — so many that a janitor would occasionally squeeze through the crowd to sweep up any that had been blown away into the street.

Directly in front of the wall, next to a Bible and a small portrait of Mandela, visitors left candles that have melted down in various stages. A row of floral bouquets, some fresh, some wilted, occupied much of the ground below the wall. The area smelled of spent wax and protea flowers.

At times, the crowd seemed festive, singing songs, telling jokes, hugging each other. Some outwardly prayed for Mandela's recovery; others stood in silence, forming circles and holding hands with whatever strangers happened to be standing next to them.

There was an air of hope among the crowd, touched with a dose of anxiety as they contemplated a South Africa without Mandela. And while they undoubtedly gathered for a multitude of reasons, they seemed united in one respect: to honor and remember the decades Mandela sacrificed in prison, and his years as president doing his utmost to heal his country's deep social wounds.

An elderly man approached the makeshift shrine with three boys, none older than 10.

"I want you to look at this picture," he said, pointing to a hand-drawn portrait of the former president, "so you will know when you are older what Nelson Mandela looked like."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andy Carvin (andycarvin.com, @acarvin on Twitter) leads NPR's social media strategy and is NPR's primary voice on Twitter, and Facebook, where NPR became the first news organization to reach one million fans. He also advises NPR staff on how to better engage the NPR audience in editorial activities in order to further the quality and diversity of NPR's journalism.