Vilakazi Street recalls iconic neighbour

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A girl writes on a wall next to the house where Nelson Mandela resided when he lived in the township of Soweto. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Johannesburg - “Nelson Mandela robbed us. He gave us food, allowed us to play with his children at his home but he robbed us – we never heard him sing.”

This is what one of Nelson Mandela’s former neighbours said on Sunday while fondly remembering her famous neighbour.

Musically, the former president is known only for his popular dance, the Madiba Jive.

On Sunday, hundreds of people, including tourists, visited the Mandela home in Soweto to bid their final farewell.

Some came with relatives to pay their last respects to Madiba.

Others took the opportunity to take pictures of themselves outside his home.

Restaurants in Vilakazi Street were filled to capacity and there were a number of stalls selling memorabilia.

While the world knows Mandela lived in Vilakazi Street, 70-year-old Elsie Mofumo-Radebe disagrees.

“Nelson Mandela lived in my street – Ngakane Street. We had no street names at that time. What you call today Vilakazi Street was Mandela’s garage entrance. He lived in Ngakane Street,” she said.

“There were no houses at Vilakazi at the time. It was just an open piece of veld and a mountain. Mandela lived in our street,” said an adamant Mofumo-Radebe.

She has fond memories of the neighbour she knew as a child.

Mofumo-Radebe also knew Mandela’s mother Nongaphi Nosekeni, who she called Makhulu.

As Mandela was laid to rest on Sunday, Mofumo-Radebe said she still had one wish: to listen to Mandela singing. “I do not know his singing voice. I would have loved to hear him sing like President Jacob Zuma,” she said.

Mofumo-Radebe woke up at 5am on Sunday to bid farewell to “Tata Mandela”.

After his death, the ANC’s Joburg region gave Mofumo-Radebe a T-shirt with “Thank You Madiba, Rest in Peace Tata” written on it.

When she got up on Sunday, she pulled on that T-shirt in deference to her childhood hero.

Mofumo-Radebe has a strong recollection of Mandela’s stay in the street, first with Evelyn Mase and later with second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

While Mandela’s wives gave everyone access to their home, she said it was Mandela’s dog, Gombo, who made the final decision. According to Mofumo-Radebe, Gombo was very selective about who to allow into the yard.

She also recalled Mandela playing soccer as a young man. “Tata Nelson Mandela liked to play soccer with other young men. He never chased anyone away from his home,” she said.

“Mayibuye i-Afrika” (Africa, come back) is how the neighbours greeted Mandela.

Mofumo-Radebe’s memories were corroborated by 68-year-old Sydney Ntshupetsang. Their memories are filled with names like Thembekile, Makgatho and Makaziwe.

Mofumo-Radebe and Ntshupetsang vividly remember the arrival of Madikizela-Mandela at the Mandela home.

“We just saw a beautiful woman. We only heard about Mandela’s divorce later. At the time we were still young,” Mofumu-Radebe said.

She said people would flock to Mandela’s house to be treated for ailments by Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn, who was a nurse. “We would brag to others that we were treated by Nurse Evelyn,” she said.

Mofumo-Radebe praised Mandela for improving relations between black and white people in the country.

“Who imagined that white people would walk the streets of Soweto? In the past we had to use different toilets and restrooms.

“Now, black and white people are able to shake hands and hug each other. All of this because of Mandela,” said Mofumo-Radebe, who once witnessed Mandela’s harassment by armed police at his home.

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