You may have wondered about the singing. When former South African president Nelson Mandela died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95, thousands of mourners gathered outside his onetime family home in Soweto township near Johannesburg to dance and sing. From the outside, it seemed more like a celebration than an expression of grief, but to South Africans, and to those of us who have lived there, it was the most honorable tribute they could have given him.
South Africa is a nation divided by words. It has 11 official languages nine tribal ones, plus Afrikaans and English and during more than four decades of racial oppression, the country's apartheid government used that to its advantage. Black South Africans were segregated not only from whites but from one another, forced to live in designated ''homelands'' that prevented the tribes from forming a unified rebellion. That plan failed, in large part, because of one language the government overlooked: music.
For most Americans, the sound of South Africa is Paul Simon's 1986 Grammy-winning album, Graceland, which featured vocals by the Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It's a fair representation deep, resonant harmonies so interwoven they could be one voice or one thousand but that sound did more than put ''Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.'' For a people scattered across a country more than three times the size of Montana, music much like the protest songs of the U.S. civil rights movement became critical to the fight for equality. Miriam Makeba's ''To Those We Love (Nongqongqo)'' and Hugh Masekela's ''Bring Him Back Home,'' among others, combined the soul lift of gospel with the headlines of the evening news. They unified and vivified. ''African music,'' Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, ''can ignite the political resolve of those who might otherwise be indifferent to politics.... Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.''
Outside the country, music helped spark a global anti-apartheid movement. In June 1964, Mandela and seven other resistance leaders had been sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state. By the mid-'80s, while serving his sentence on Robben Island, Mandela had become a cause célèbre on U.S. and U.K. college campuses, thanks to the 1984 hit from British ska outfit the Special AKA, ''Nelson Mandela,'' a joyful, leap-to-your-feet rallying cry imploring the government to release him, and the 1985 crunching rock anthem ''Sun City'' from Artists United Against Apartheid, featuring group founder Steven Van Zandt and his E Street Bandmate Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Run-DMC, and others vowing not to play in South Africa. The following year, artists such as Sting, U2, and Joan Baez participated in a six-concert Amnesty International tour, A Conspiracy of Hope, that raised awareness about ''prisoners of conscience,'' including Mandela.
By the end of the decade, Broadway and Hollywood had joined the cause, with the film Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington as slain South African activist Steve Biko, the TV movie Mandela, and the debut of the stage musical Sarafina! (later a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg). In June 1988, an estimated 600 million people tuned in to watch George Michael, Eurythmics, Whitney Houston, and others perform at the televised Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at London's Wembley Stadium. Artists alone did not free Mandela, of course, but they added fuel to a growing political fire that would ultimately force the South African government to dismantle itself. ''Big things can grow from small beginnings,'' says Jerry Dammers, who wrote ''Nelson Mandela'' as leader of the Special AKA. ''After Nelson Mandela was released there was another concert in Wembley where he came to address the crowd. He got an eight-minute standing ovation. It was an amazing moment in my life.''
By the time Mandela stepped out of prison on Feb. 11, 1990, he had been transformed from a national freedom fighter into an international symbol of liberation. He would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and become South Africa's first black president the following year. His life is one of the most pivotal narratives of the 20th century, and the film industry has tried its best to capture it. Clint Eastwood's 2009 film, Invictus, with Morgan Freeman, and the current release Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba, are the most high-profile examples, but neither has managed to fully realize both the man and the icon. Some lives are simply too big for the movies.
The story of Mandela is best told not through his own life, really, but through his people. For all his achievements, his most indelible was showing black South Africans, who had been shamed into believing that they were fit for little more than servitude, that they were not merely equal but had the capacity for greatness. In a week marked by speeches from global dignitaries praising Mandela's leadership, it is easy to forget his countrymen, but Mandela himself never did. ''When Mandela spoke for us,'' Masekela recently told CBS, ''it wasn't about him, it was about his country.''
That country said goodbye to him last week. The TV cameras showed the formal ceremony and the stadium-packed crowds, but the real farewell took place in churches and village gatherings, and in that throng outside his Soweto home. There is a belief among black South Africans a belief as central to their identity as the American belief in rugged individualism that they are all connected, an integral part of a whole. In rural areas, when someone dies, the adults hold vigil over the body in shifts and sing. Some of the songs are sad, some are happy. They are not sung for the mourners, but for the person who has passed, telling him that even in death they are with him, and he is not alone.
EW assistant managing editor Sean Smith served as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa from 2011 to 2013. (Ray Rahman contributed additional reporting.)