On the official announcement of his retirement from public life in June 2004, an 85-year-old Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela explained to the world that his health had been failing and that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Since then, he’s been bothered more than a few times. On your 92nd birthday, Madiba, you deserve all the peace that’s been promised to you.
One week before his 92nd birthday, on 11 July 2010, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela appeared before the world in a heavy coat and a thick fur hat – it was the closing ceremony of the Fifa World Cup, held on a bitterly cold evening in Johannesburg, and Madiba was driven around the pitch in a golf cart. Despite his family’s warning that such an outing would be strenuous for a man of his age, Fifa (according to grandson Mandla Mandela) had placed “intense pressure” on the international icon. Initially, Fifa president Sepp Blatter had asked that Mandela present the famous trophy to the winning team, but after being sharply rebuked by the family he’d backed down. Mandela would appear briefly, he would wave to the crowd and the TV cameras, and then he would leave before kick-off.
Given Blatter’s background (see below for an article on a singularly compromised career), it was an undeserved coup for Fifa. Here were men that were known low-lifes, people who’d gotten to where they were through deceit and corruption, and they’d strong-armed one of the most revered individuals on Earth into doing their bidding.
Still, Fifa aside, it was fitting in a way that Madiba had come. Like the first multi-racial elections in 1994 and the Rugby World Cup in 1995, the 2010 football World Cup had shown South Africans an alternative vision of their future. Who better than Mandela, in what may have been the last public appearance of his life, to cement that vision? The wild applause from the South Africans at Soccer City –as well as from those in fan parks, bars and shebeens across the country – expressed a truth far larger than the hypocrisy that gave rise to it.
And yet the point still stands: Mandela, at age 92, has done enough. He is entitled to his rest. In a piece that ran on Friday in the UK Telegraph, a British journalist articulated what South Africans well know.
“The Nelson Mandela Foundation receives endless requests from businesses seeking to ‘Disney-fy’ the Mandela brand and selling everything from Viagra to fridge magnets. They are constantly turning down invitations for him to speak or open public buildings.
“During the World Cup and the run up to his birthday, it sought to quell the appetite for a new glimpse of the world’s most famous man, with an Intimate Moments exhibition showing him at home and off guard, and the occasional personalised statement.”
The journalist, Aislinn Laing, also quoted Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, who said that despite a sprightly appearance when he’s in public, Madiba recognises that he’s “ebbing away”.
“He has been signalling for a long time now but in the last six months very determinedly that he wanted to step away from public life,” Harris said. “He loves to be remembered for what he has done and he loves to see people but in very tightly controlled, small segments of time.”
The birthday celebrations on 18 July this year will reflect the old man’s wishes. Mandela will spend the day at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, surrounded by his immediate family. His children, grandchildren and great-children, according to Mandla Mandela – the son of Madiba’s oldest son, and chief of the clan in Mvezo – will go out on Sunday morning and “do their 67 minutes” as a patriotic gesture.
Mandla himself will be hosting a national celebration in Mvezo, which will be attended by state dignitaries, including President Jacob Zuma.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo in 1918, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela. His great-grandfather on his father’s side, Ngubengcuka, ruled as the king of the Thembu people, and his father was the principal councilor to the chief of the Thembu. Rolihlahla, which translates as “pulling the branch of a tree,” became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo after Henry Mgadla’s death in 1927. He was the first member of his family to attend a school, the Wesleyan mission school near the palace of the regent, where his teacher gave him the name “Nelson”.
At age 16, Mandela was initiated according to Xhosa custom. He matriculated three years later at Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school in Fort Beaufort. At the University College of Fort Hare, where he enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree, he was elected to the Students’ Representative Council. Along with a young Oliver Tambo, he was suspended from the college for taking part in a protest boycott.
From there, the rest is world history.
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