The late Nelson Mandela received a touching honor in the unlikeliest of places this week—the produce section of a South African supermarket. At a Woolworths in Johannesburg, a flash mob unexpectedly serenaded customers with an a capella rendition of “Asimbonanga” (We have not seen him) by South African singer, songwriter and musical activist, Johnny Clegg. Posted on December 9, the video has more than one million views on YouTube and is just starting to make the rounds in the U.S.
The singers, dressed inconspicuously as Woolworths’ personnel and customers, are members of the Grammy award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir. Founded in 2002 to celebrate the inspirational power of African gospel music, the group culls its singers from church choirs in and around Soweto, an urban area of Johannesburg. The vocalists have performed for Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey and have recorded songs with artists as varied as Robert Plant, Celine Dion, Peter Gabriel and U2. The choir is also an ambassador for Mandela’s 46664 campaign. Pronounced “four, double-six, six-four,” the non-profit organization raises awareness for the prevention of HIV/AIDS.
The group’s song selection is more than fitting: Clegg wrote “Asimbonanga” in 1986 as a tribute to Mandela, who was imprisoned in South Africa at the time. The song’s powerful lyrics combine English verses with Zulu choruses:
Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)
Asimbonang' uMandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)
Laph'ekhona (In the place where he is)
Laph'ehleli khona (In the place where he is kept)
In a recent statement, Clegg wrote on his website:
“Nelson Mandela will always define a deep part of what and who we are as individuals and as a nation. … It is the qualities of tolerance and forgiveness however which stand out as his lasting legacy as well as the way he used these to unite the country both during and after his presidency. With all our fellow south Africans we acknowledge with deep gratitude the debt we owe to this humble and great statesman from Qunu, who bequeathed to us this great country of promise. Today, although we grieve, we also proudly rejoice in his remarkable life, which we were privileged to share through extraordinary times.”
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