PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and first black president, is in hospital for a lung infection, the third time he has been in hospital this year. In response, international media assumed their now-regular positions for when the 94-year-old human rights icon falls ill, gathering in front of the two Pretoria hospitals where he could be hospitalized, and his home in Houghton, a suburb of Johannesburg. “I’m filing on the half-hour for now. There really isn’t much to say except what we know,” Barry Bateman, an Eyewitness News correspondent stationed outside of one hospital Sunday morning, said on Twitter, “My relief arrives at 10 a.m.”
On Saturday, a transport vehicle left the hospital, escorted by three black BMW’s with blue lights. Reporters chased it, believing it to hold the elderly statesman. When the convoy didn’t appear at his house, reporters suggested the convoy was a decoy, sent by the government to thwart their Mandela death-bed coverage. They are eyeing the sky too. One Reuters photographer stationed outside of 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria late Saturday afternoon, said he believed Mandela would be flown in an Oryx helicopter from Pretoria, the country’s capital, to Qunu, Mandela’s home village in the Eastern Cape. Still, he admitted, no one knows exactly where Mandela is.
Mandela turns 95 in July. Verne Harris, an archivist at the Nelson Mandela Foundation who has worked closely with him, said it’s been years since he’s had a proper conversation with the former president, who retired from public life in 2004. It should be his time to go, says Harris. But South Africa won’t let him. “There are people in the country who have elevated him to a level of superhero,” said Harris.
As South Africa’s economy continues to falter, a result of labour disputes and corruption within its government, the human rights hero is regularly used by politicians to drum up support for their causes. In April, President Jacob Zuma posed for a photograph with a frail, pale and blank-eyed Mandela, propped up on a couch underneath a beige blanket. Zuma said he wanted to prove to the world Mandela is alive and well. Critics said Zuma was using him for his 2014 election campaign.
Though Mandela stepped down as president in 1999, it’s as if he is politically active today. “I think if we had the good fortunes of Mandela for two terms, we would have had a better chance because he was a committed democrat,” said Mamphela Ramphele, founder of a new political party, Agang, last week.
A post-Mandela South Africa is a big unknown. The end of apartheid was a jubilant time for the country, and South Africa, led by Mandela, was feted around the world for ending a racist regime. The new democracy wrote a breathtakingly forward constitution, and committed itself to the most cherished principles of democracy today. Yet over twenty years later, the nation has failed to live up to its promise. Inequality is worse than under the whites-only apartheid regime. Nigeria is set to overtake South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. Politicians, including the president, are increasingly mired in embarrassing corruption scandals.
Afrikaners have a legend, known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” that was made over 100 years ago by Siener van Rensburg, a prophet. The legend goes something like this: the day a prominent black leader dies, racial peace in South Africa will end, and blacks will kill all the whites in the country.
To be clear, it is a legend. Still, the cataclysmic attitude about Mandela’s passing isn’t far off. Mandela is the living embodiment of the country’s greatness, its triumph over tyranny. Without him, South Africa has to face the uncomfortable reality that the greatness he promised is far from fruition.