As Nelson Mandela, 94, spent his fifth day in Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital, South Africans’ alarm at his sudden decline has given way to a concern to preserve the dignity of a man who, to so many, represents the best of them and of all humanity. The respectful tone is apparent in the sparse updates on Mandela’s condition from his longtime friend, Mac Maharaj (also spokesman for President Jacob Zuma), who has been limiting the information he passes on essentially to five words: “Lung infection” and “serious but stable.” Zuma himself offered a more hopeful update on Wednesday, telling Parliament that his predecessor was “responding well to treatment” after a “difficult few days.” There has been little word from Mandela’s family, though his daughters Makaziwe, Zenani and Zindzi have all visited, as has his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The massing ranks of the world’s press have so far also played their part, observing a notable decorum by not crowding Mandela’s relatives and mostly restricting themselves to Maharaj’s occasional statements. Meanwhile South Africa’s press has taken on the role of national grief counselor. “It’s time to let him go,” was the front page of the Sunday Times this past weekend.
During the 27 years he spent as a prisoner of a racist white regime, Mandela became a global symbol of injustice. But he elevated himself to icon when, after his release in 1990, he put aside his own sacrifice and suffering and urged reconciliation rather than revenge; and then, to hold South Africa together, he formed a government with his former persecutors. His stature rose further when he retired after a single term as President in 1999, a contrast to the many African leaders, and then again in his 80s when he became a kind of sage and conscience to the world, using his eminence to promote peace and fight poverty and disease.
Mandela has not been a presence on South Africa’s political scene for 15 years. Fears that he remains a lynchpin of the country are not only misplaced, they are, in the opinion of many South Africans, also an insult to the peace and stability that Mandela created. Mandela said as much himself 17 years ago, in a newspaper article he wrote as President in response to earlier rumors about his poor health. “A ridiculous notion is sometimes advanced that Mandela has been exclusively responsible for these real achievements of the South African people [whereas] this majority — both black and white — [made] our miracle happen.”
But there is no denying that the comparisons between Mandela and those who followed him in government, his African National Congress (ANC) or his own family, have often been unkind. Very few ANC leaders have avoided the allegations of corruption and gangsterism that have damaged the party’s reputation. Among the family, Madikizela-Mandela is a convicted fraudster and received a six-year sentence (though it was later suspended) for her involvement in the 1988 kidnapping of a 14-year-old suspected police informer, who was later found dead. Other members of Mandela’s family have long seemed to trade off his name, whether in politics, business or even, this year, in a reality TV show, Being Mandela, which starred two of his granddaughters. Such degrading of the Mandela name and principles is the guilty reality of much of modern South Africa, where the euphoria of the release from apartheid long ago gave way to a national sense of disillusionment and shame at corruption, a faltering economy, high crime and, perhaps worst, lame leadership.
Perhaps that accounts for the patient and determined propriety now settling on South Africa. Outside the hospital Wednesday, Mandla Mandela, Mandela’s grandson and chief of the Traditional Council in Mvezo, where Mandela’s family originates, told reporters the family had been “deeply touched” and “heartened by the overwhelming messages of support,” many of which also referred to Mandela as “father.” On Tuesday, Zuma told South African state television: “We are all feeling it that our President, the real father of democracy in South Africa, is in the hospital.”
Mandela’s recurrent lung infection has been successfully treated at least four times in the past six months, and there is every chance that he will make his 95th birthday next month. As it readies for another long night’s vigil, South Africa’s mood seems to be: however long he has left, however badly we sometimes failed him, we must not again, not now.