By Ron Allen, Correspondent, NBC News
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA -- It was a simple gesture, but also another moment that revealed the power and influence of Nelson Mandela, often affectionately referred to as Madiba.
On a hill overlooking the capital Pretoria, several hundred ordinary people, including some young school children who joined in during recess, held hands and formed a human chain that stretched about half a mile. It was formed to honor the still ailing former President Mandela.
“I, one link in this human chain, pledge to do all I can to build an undivided South Africa free from poverty as envisioned by Nelson Mandela,” they said in unison, reciting a pledge committing themselves to work to achieve Mandela’s vision for this country.
They stood for 67 minutes, the number of years Mandela dedicated to public service beginning with his time as a human rights lawyer in the 1940's until he retired from public life. Mandela’s birthday, July 18th, also is recognized around the world as a time for people to spend 67 minutes of their time lending someone a helping hand.
“My heart goes out to him, our Madiba,” said Anglican Archbishop the Most Reverend Dr. Thabo Makgoba of Capetown, the church’s new young leader. He has taken over the post once held by another iconic figure here, the now retired Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And, Makgoba added, because Mandela is so frail and at home in critical condition, “We need to seize the moment, while he is still alive, and lead by his example.”
Mary Murray/NBC News
Makgoba was leading the event to kick off what will be a huge celebration here next week, September 24th, on Heritage Day. It is a public day of reflection about where the nation stands in relation to Mandela’s dream for it. It has been 19 years since he was elected President, changing just about everything here.
This small but symbolic gathering was also significant because it started in a place called Freedom Park, the nation’s newest monument, officially open in April and still a work in progress. In 1999, Mandela said in a speech, “The day should not be far off when we shall have a people’s shrine, a Freedom Park, where we shall honor with all the dignity they deserve, those who endured pain so we should experience the joy of freedom.”
One main feature of the park is its huge walls lining its footpaths, inscribed with the names of those who have given their lives for South Africa. Some 76,000 are there so far, veterans of South Africa’s wars, World War I and II, and the liberation struggle, as it’s called here, against apartheid.
Mary Murray/NBC News
“I hope that young people will learn the value of sacrifice, and the value of serving the public good,” said the archbishop, surrounded by a class of grade school children all dressed in crisp blue uniforms. They were heading back to class after taking their places in the human chain.
But before leaving, they all sang the song that echoes at so many public gatherings here these days. The often repeated lyric says, "Nelson Mandela ... Nelson Mandela ... there’s no one like you.”