12/09/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/07/2014 05:59 EST

South Africans praise the life of their beloved Madiba

She only knows him from the history books at her school in Johannesburg. But nine-year-old TshifhiwaNemutshili is certain that Nelson Mandela was a great man. 

“He lived a long time and we’re honoured to live in his history,” she told me, as she clutched a homemade card she made with crayons and stickers. “R.I.P. Madiba,” Tshifhiwa wrote, a term of respect referring to his clan name.

She has learned another lesson, beyond school, too.

“My parents tell me about him and they tell me that I must do good things like him. If there are wrong things that are being done I must stand up and tell the people that’s wrong. That’s what Mandela did.”

South Africans young and old have spent the last several days figuring out what Mandela meant to them personally. 

The tributes still pour in — South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma said Sunday Mandela was “a light in the darkness” — but as dozens of world leaders make their way here for memorial services, many South Africans are moving beyond the history books and accolades.

“This is our time to remember Madiba,” said Elaine Philip. She, like tens of thousands of others, brought her children down to Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg. 

People wait patiently to have their pictures taken with a towering statue of the former South African president. Children bend down to lay wreaths of flowers and homemade goodbye messages.

Jane Philip, 16, coloured a picture of Mandela, and wrote: “Your dream, our reality.”

“We were going to print it out on the computer, but I decided to draw it because if it you draw it becomes from the heart. It’s a few words of what we felt about him.”

What continues to take place at churches, squares and public spaces is nothing like a vigil. South Africans are praising the life of their beloved Madiba.

“Yes, of course we are sad. But it’s like when your grandfather passes away, we celebrate their life work and we smile and we dance. We do this for him even more,” Celina Makoba told me as she clapped her hands to the traditional music that has transformed the street in front of Mandela’s home into a festival.

Men and women in red and green traditional tribal costumes chant and dance as a small parade makes its way in front of the home. The music infects everyone and soon there are few hands that aren’t clapping. This scene plays out into the early hours of the morning. Many people have come here every day since it was announced Mandela died, last Thursday.

But there has also been time for sober reflection, as well.

“We’re in a bad spot at the moment but we need to remember him every day of our lives,” said John Davis, who came to pay his respects at Mandela Square. “The corruption and the fact that the poor have not got what Mandela wanted for them is disappointing.”

Davis used to live in Cape Town, in an apartment overlooking the prison where Mandela served 27 years behind bars. “I used to look at Robben Island and think he’ll never come out alive.”

But he did. And Davis thinks that after Mandela is laid to rest, South Africans need to figure out their path forward. “His death has to make us determined that Mandela’s legacy will be realized.”