News of the recurring illness of South Africa’s much loved leader, informally known as Madiba (Nelson Mandela), set off a new round of prayers for his recovery in the nation and around the world.
But in Qunu in the Eastern Cape, residents there were already grieving the passing of a Mandela – Florence Mandela – a close relative to the country’s former statesman and wife of one of the sons of Madiba’s uncle Solomon. She died last week at the age of 96.
Qunu, the home village of the former President, is now the home of the Nelson Mandela Museum and villagers there are foreseeing a heavy influx of tourists and visitors. Some residents have begun turning their homes into B&Bs, as there might not be enough place in the village should the ailing icon die, according to a report in The Sowetan newspaper.
But the talk of the town centered on the place of Mandela in their lives.
Nomishini Krexa, a villager, wondered: “Where will we be when he’s not around? What would we do here in Qunu, how would our lives be?
“Because of him we can feed our children. We have toilets, we have electricity. We would like to let him go but we’re scared. He has done so much for us.” Mandela, she said, brought her family together at a time when men lived in hostels at the mines where they worked.
The women were not allowed to live with their husbands and had to stay behind in the villages to look after the children.
An elderly woman, who asked not to be identified, echoed Krexa’s sentiments that people feared that without Mandela, their rights wouldn’t be upheld.
“If he’s not here (not alive), it won’t be good. We are pained to see him in pain. It’s not nice seeing your loved one like that, but what are we saying he must stay for?” she asked.
Noamen Qhola, from Mvezo, the village where Mr. Mandela was born, echoed her neighbor’s remarks: “…the day Tata is gone, things may change,” Qhola said.
Mandela’s grandson, who is the chief in Mvezo, said only: “I can’t comment on things related to uTat’omkhulu (grandfather)”.
Secrecy appears to be concealing a battle to save Mr. Mandela’s life. A report by CBS News, citing an unnamed source, said Mr. Mandela was in a medical “crisis” and had to be resuscitated by a medical team at his home last Friday night, shortly before he was rushed to hospital at about 1:30 a.m.
None of these details have been confirmed by the office of President Jacob Zuma, the only official channel for information on the health of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
But citizens are drawing their own conclusions from the stream of family members visiting him at the Pretoria hospital and holding vigil at his bedside. His wife, Graca Machel, cancelled a trip to London and has remained with him since Friday. His daughter Zenani, the South African ambassador to Argentina, has flown home to be with him. Other children and grandchildren have been visiting him all week, along with his ex-wife, Winnie.
President Zuma’s office has been widely criticized for releasing misleading sound bites on Mandela’s health.
Just a few weeks ago, President Zuma and other members of his ruling African National Congress visited Mr. Mandela at his home in a Johannesburg suburb, and President Zuma later claimed that the former president was “up and about” and “looking very good.” In fact, video footage from the visit showed Mr. Mandela obviously frail, frozen-faced, unable to smile, and almost unresponsive. It was the only video image of Mr. Mandela to be released in the past 10 months.
Mr. Mandela’s fragile health is not unexpected for a man of his age, especially since he suffered tuberculosis during his 27 years of imprisonment in the apartheid era. In some ways, his latest hospital admission has been a bigger story globally than it has in South Africa, where people have become accustomed to his health problems over the years. Though he is beloved by the country, many people now say they are prepared to hear the worst.
A friend of the elder leader, Andrew Mlangeni, spoke frankly of the state of the internationally-admired statesman. “The family must release him so that God may have his own way,” said Mlangeni, a former ANC activist who served years of imprisonment with Mr. Mandela on Robben Island.
“Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow,” he told a South African newspaper. “We will say, ‘Thank you, God, you have given us this man, and we will release him too.’ ”
Nelson Mandela’s birthday, on July 18, was recognized by the U.N. in 2009 after his speech in Hyde Park, London, for his 90th birthday. He said at that occasion: “It is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now.”