Cape Town - Shortly after dawn on Friday, there were 10 SANDF Nyala troop carriers parked outside Nelson Mandela’s homestead in Qunu, Transkei.
In addition, there was an assortment of police and traffic enforcement vehicles, two ambulances to cover emergencies, various unmarked official cars and bakkies, as well as heavily armed soldiers in uniform patrolling the perimeter.
On the other side of the national highway stood no more than a dozen journalists, some twiddling knobs and fine-tuning satellite dishes, one or two interviewing local residents, and others chewing pensively on pens and studying the mute and uncommunicative forms of locked gates and four-square men in uniform for clues.
Still others were catching up on sleep lost between hearing of the passing of Mandela at 10pm on Thursday night and hurtling in from wherever they were to be at what will be the final resting place of not only South Africa’s greatest son, but also a senior chief of the Thembu royal line.
But for the most part, life goes on as usual in the hill country.
Dogs fight over scraps of food, hens peck, pigs forage; and young men in twos and threes criss-cross the valleys, bearing knobkieries.
Herds of sheep showing scant respect for the presence of authority bleat and bounce among the war machines.
Old men pull up chairs and settle in to watch the passing parade and the circus pulling into town again.
Kids arrive and leave again.
A couple of brassy girls hang out and offer themselves to the camera.
But mostly, while the whole world misses a beat at the death of Africa’s greatest son, Qunu carries on much as usual.
It is not that the people don’t care – these people are Mandela’s own – it is just that they have an unsentimental and realistic streak. They will celebrate and remember in more tangible ways.
Directly across the road from the pomp and bureaucratic circumstance of the homestead declared a national key point there lives a woman, also of the Thembu royal line, who has set up a spaza shop to provide refreshments to the hungry and thirsty hordes of the world’s media who will be descending in the course of the next week for what will in all probability prove to be the most watched funeral in history.
She also garnered some notoriety by selling three camera positions on her property to US news network CNN.
Other householders in the row also reportedly sold rights to their properties to other major broadcasters like the BBC, some earning dividends month by month for upward of two years before the eventual death of the great statesman.
Another enterprising local has let out her entire B&B to big-spending CNN for R150 000 over three days – a lot more money than the average Qunu household earns in a year.
Throughout the valley, the finishing touches are being hurriedly carried out, and licks of paint applied to new bungalows built to cash in on the coming tourist boom. And the boom will persist as the Mandela homestead becomes an international tourist treasure in years to come.
Other locals, meanwhile, are thinking on their feet. Halfway through the afternoon, one chap approached straggling journalists saying we must be hungry, we must be needing something to eat…
“You can’t go to Mthatha every time,” he opined. “Let me make you boerewors rolls.”
He’ll be doing some serious business in weeks to come. - Sunday Argus