Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Photo Essay: Cape Town Quietly Mourns Mandela

Sam Reinders is a photojournalist born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. She was 13 when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. In the days after his death, Reinders walked the streets of her hometown and sent us this personal photo essay.

By now you've heard the news. Spread by undersea cable, satellites high above us, in the wind that is howling in Cape Town as I write these words: Madiba is dead.

Iconic images are filling the airwaves: Grainy archive footage of Mandela in his boxing gloves, that triumphant fist-raised-to-the-sky walk from prison, the photo with Bill Clinton next to him, looking out from the bars that were once his prison cell.

You've seen the outpouring of tears and grief as people say goodbye to the legendary leader. Chanting, singing, dancing, toy-toyi'ing — from outside his home in Johannesburg and in the streets of Soweto. The Dalai Lama has paid tribute, as has President Obama. The Vatican has shared its condolences, as have celebrities from across the globe. Madiba is trending.

The grief has gone viral.

But what now? I knew this day would come. Everyone did. It took me a while to realize what I was grappling with. I'm a journalist by profession. I tell stories with my camera. But unexpectedly that identity I've always clung to seems to have crumbled. Today I'm not a journalist. I don't want to be. I'm a citizen. And what I show you here comes from Sam the citizen, not Sam the journalist. Personal feelings captured with my camera. No press pass between me and how I feel.

One of my clearest memories as a child was spending the day at home watching Mandela's release from jail on TV. Our domestic worker, Sylvia, sat with my father on the couch sharing a bottle of champagne. I remember thinking this odd. At the time she was one of the few people of color I knew. I went to Drakenstein Prison today for the first time. The "Long Walk to Freedom" statue, unveiled in 2008 on Mandela's birthday, now stands at the entrance. Madiba's fist is raised, as it was on my television screen so many years ago.

Dawn outside the City Hall on Cape Town's Grand Parade. This is where Mandela gave his first speech as a free man, and the place in the city most associated with him.

Taken at dawn outside the City Hall on Cape Town's Grand Parade.
/ Samantha Reinders for NPR

St. George's Cathedral is the city's official church. Desmond Tutu, when he was archbishop, preached from the altar. Mandela worshipped here as president, and it is here that people have come to pray — for him, for themselves, for the future. The cathedral is cavernous and was eerily empty when I stopped by.

In Cape Town the emotion has a more somber tone than cities like Johannesburg. While people slowly move around the city to sign a condolence book or leave flowers, they aren't gathering in huge masses like those in and around Mandela's childhood home.

One of the very first tributes left at City Hall in the early hours of the morning after Mandela's passing. Lucky Star Pilchards were one of Mandela's favorite foods. He often joked that he preferred very simple food and is rumored to have continued eating the same meals he ate in jail long after his release.

I was struck by the number of people bringing their young children to pay their respects. While most of them are too young to really understand, it may be something that years from now they'll recollect.

Out of the hundreds of tributes I read, this one really tugged a heartstring. It was left outside Drakenstein Prison, where Mandela was moved after leaving Robben Island. It reads: "Nelson Mandela was a good man. South Africa was very wrong to put him in jail for 27 years just because he did the right thing. Love Gerrie."

Lela, 5 months old, is held by her mother who dressed her up for the occasion. "One day I'll explain this all to her."

Mandela is most often referred to by his clan name — Madiba — or as "Tata," which means father in Xhosa, his tribal language.

A young boy writes a goodbye message at an exhibition for Mandela at Cape Town's civic center. The exhibition opened earlier this year in celebration of Mandela's 95th birthday.

A mural of Mandela — a recurring motif — in Woodstock, a Cape Town suburb.

A man walks past a mural of Mandela in Woodstock, a Cape Town suburb. Mandela's portrait is no stranger to the walls of Cape Town.
/ Samantha Reinders for NPR

A lady silently mourns Mandela's passing.

A lady silently mourns. A stark contrast to scenes coming from Johannesburg.
/ Samantha Reinders for NPR

Johnny Clegg's song "Asimbonanga" is on repeat — both at City Hall and in my head — as I drive around the city.

Oh the sea is cold and the sky is gray

Look across the island into the bay

We are all islands till comes the day

We cross the burning water

I head to Signal Hill for a view of Robben Island. This is the place I most associate with the man who my parents told me about when I was little. I lived in the suburb across the bay from the island where Mandela was imprisoned for so many years. It was a dot I could see from the beach. I struggled as a child to imagine it as a prison. From where I could see it, it looked so beautiful — and prisons are not supposed to be pretty.

I never got the chance to photograph Mandela. That is something I'll regret forever.

You can see more of Reinders' work .

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit