When Emanuel Tamen heard of Nelson Mandela’s death Thursday, there was only one place to go.
“When I heard the news, I wasn’t sure what to do, and I thought there’s an embassy a close walking distance,” Tamen said. “I just felt it was the place to be.”
So, he made the short walk to the South African Embassy in Washington, DC, joining others who gathered in the rain outside the building where a flag flapped at half-mast to mourn the anti-apartheid champion, first South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Mandela passed away at 95 after struggling for months with a lung infection.
The embassy, undergoing renovations, unveiled a statue of Mandela with his fist in the air in September. On Thursday, the statue became a shrine.
Some stood looking up at the stone portrait of Mandela, some lit candles at the statue’s feet and some arranged flowers in the chain-link fence surrounding the building. A few parents brought their children.
For Tamen, it was about more than seeing Mandela’s statue.
“I thought it would be a good place to feel the moment,” he said.
At the embassy, Tamen met other people who shared his reaction. They stood quietly most of the time, but also exchanged memories of watching Mandela’s fight for a country still plagued with problems but remarkably at peace.
One of those people was a former anti-Apartheid activist who didn’t want to be named but whose grief was bare. She worked with the Institute for Policy Studies’ Africa project in the District of Columbia and said Mandela’s death was “not a surprise but a shock.”
She remembered years of protests outside the embassy and recounted her admiration for South Africans when she saw Mandela elected president in 1991.
“I fought from here. It’s not hard from here,” she said. “It’s time and effort but not what they did.”
She and Tamen agreed that despite the sadness of Mandela’s death, just to have lived during his lifetime was “a special moment.”
In a White House statement, President Barack Obama spoke of the inspiration he had drawn from Mandela.
“The first thing I ever did that involved an issue of policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid,” Obama said. “And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set; and so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him.”
President of South Africa Jacob Zuma called Mandela’s death a moment from which to distill determination for “a better world,” to realize Mandela’s vision.
“What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” Zuma said. “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
Tamen said Mandela’s humanity and his ability to bring several groups “under one umbrella” would assure his status as a role model for generations to come.
“I’m almost thinking of a beginning,” Tamen said. “The actual historical battles really begin now.”
On Friday, the embassy opened its doors for a signing of a “book of condolence” in memory of the world figure. It will remain open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. until Tuesday.