Mandela and his people: The agony of letting go
As Nelson Mandela clings to life at a Pretoria hospital, the nation he sculptured out of the ruins of Apartheid is holding vigil, trying to come to terms with saying goodbye and at the same time hanging on to hope for a miracle. In what seems to be his final days, South Africa looks on, captivated and anxious, willing him to feel the deep emotion sweeping across the country. Madiba has lingered, perhaps to help us come to terms with his passing or perhaps because he not yet ready to leave us. Behind the morbid hospital watch, the choir festival at the gates and the bickering over who he belongs to politically, is the story of an extraordinary love between a man and his people. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
From Sunday night when a statement from the presidency announced that Nelson Mandela was in a “critical” condition, South Africa switched into a mode of anxiety and worry. The feeling of time to say goodbye had finally come, and despite Madiba’s serious chest infections over the past three years, the numerous hospital stays and his advanced age, there has been a profound sadness prevalent in the country over the past few days.
But how exactly does a nation let go of the man who defined it and made it exceptional? As this week progressed, anxious waiting gave way to prayer and visual displays of affection. The situation is unprecedented, as never before has the passing of so beloved a world figure been as highly anticipated. Added to the complexity of the situation is a foreign media narrative that South Africa would fall into calamity once Mandela passes, the tensions within his family, the distrust of information from the presidency and the expected scale of activity when the country goes into mourning.
Mandela has been treated at a Pretoria hospital for three weeks, but from Monday morning, following the announcement of the deterioration of his condition, there has been a large media stakeout at the gates of the facility. The eyes of the world turned to South Africa in anticipation of the passing of a global icon.
In a new media age, a whirl of information has surrounded Mandela’s hospitalisation. There has been streaming reportage on social media and live television and radio crossings of the comings and goings of members of the Mandela family, government officials and medical personnel treating the former statesman.
What began with a few messages and bouquets at the hospital gate has now become a gallery of poster art and theatre for impromptu performances – from children reciting rhymes, to hymns by candlelight, brass bands and chanting of struggle songs. By Thursday afternoon, hundreds of ANC supporters were bussed in to pray and sing on the road outside the hospital. Earlier, 94 white balloons, symbolising Mandela’s age, floated into the sky above the hospital. Prayer services were also held in other parts of the country and at the former Mandela residence in Vilakazi Street, Soweto.
The media has been lapping up the visuals as it provides colour and emotion to their reports to keep the story running in between updates from the presidency on Mandela’s condition. While the presidency is often criticised for its lack of communication on other issues and previous reluctance to disclose information about Mandela’s health, the media and public has been hanging onto every word coming from President Jacob Zuma’s office, as it has been the only real source of information on the former president’s condition.
Zuma’s statements have also been uncharacteristically frank in the past week, with no attempt to camouflage the seriousness of Mandela’s condition. It is clear that the presidency has been trying to prepare the nation for the worst and also wants to avoid accusations that it misled the country and the world.
Zuma has also been extremely attentive on the issue, making three visits to the hospital this week and cancelling a trip to Mozambique for a regional summit in order to be close by for any eventuality. Unlike most other issues where Zuma palms responsibility onto someone else, he is taking personal charge for all issues around Mandela. He has been receiving personal briefings from the doctors and been in regular contact with the Mandela family.
As the week has progressed and the presidency has been regular and forthright with its statements, there has been growing confidence in the information from that office. On Thursday afternoon, his statement that there was an improvement in Mandela’s condition from the night before – even though he remained critical – was widely welcomed. Though the nation is gearing to let go of its beloved icon, the news that he might be getting better re-ignited hope that perhaps it is not yet time.
The statements from the presidency have consistently acknowledged the prayers and well wishes from the nation but have also appealed that the family’s privacy be respected and that the media should not overstep its bounds. Adding to the pressure and anxiety this week have been numerous false reports that Mandela had passed on, that the life-support system had been switched off and speculation about his alleged non-responsiveness.
On Thursday, in an interview with the SABC, Mandela’s oldest daughter Makaziwe Mandela lashed out at the foreign media, calling them “vultures” and their reporting “crass”.
“It is like, truly, vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo, waiting there, you know, for the last carcasses. That is the image that we have as a family,” she said. “It is very crass. The fact that my dad is a global icon, one of the 25 most influential people of the 20th century, does not mean that people cannot respect the privacy and dignity of my dad.
“I don’t want to say this, but I am going to say it: there is sort of a racist element with many of the foreign media where they just cross boundaries… We don’t mind the interest, but I just think it has gone overboard... They violate all boundaries.”
Makaziwe Mandela also used the opportunity to emphasise that politically, her father belonged to the ANC. This came in the wake of attempts by the opposition to stake a claim to him. Late yesterday afternoon there was criticism of the ANC for turning the area outside the hospital into a political rally. While Mandela has been a uniting figure, he has consistently made it clear that his political loyalty lay only with the ANC. But like with the infighting in the Mandela family, the elder statesman’s greatness is also the source of vulnerability as everyone tries to exploit him for their own benefit.
The world’s most powerful leader, US President Barack Obama, will fly into the country on Friday evening, but South Africa is extremely distracted by the ill health of its founding president. Obama’s visit could not have come at a more inopportune moment and neither Zuma nor the people of South Africa are in the state of mind to deal with such a big foreign visit.
The itinerary for Obama’s African tour makes it difficult for him to postpone the South African leg as it falls in between the visits to Senegal and Tanzania. If he cancels the South African leg owing to Mandela’s condition, he cannot arrive in Tanzania earlier than expected due to meticulous minute-by-minute planning in each country. So arrangements for Obama’s visit have proceeded tentatively, all dependent on whether Mandela survives the week.
For South Africans, each day brings a new period of anxious waiting, and preparing for the worst. Nelson Mandela has so many varied and personal connections to so many people whose lives he touched. But he is also what made South Africa truly exceptional. The time is coming for South Africans to be something other than Mandela’s people. No matter how much we prepare, becoming a Mandela-less nation is very difficult to contend with. It is why holding on and letting go is such torment. DM
Photo: Well-wishers hold a cloth with the face of Mandela as they sing in support of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital where he is being treated in Pretoria June 27, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko