Nelson Mandela has entered his sixth day in a Johannesburg hospital where his pneumonia is said to be improving. The global media has tracked Mandela’s health carefully in the past few months, ever since an extended stay in hospital in December led some to fear the worst that his long life may finally soon come to an end.
In South Africa, of course, there is widespread concern for ‘Madiba’, as he is affectionately known. The man who led the country’s anti-Apartheid struggle and became its first democratically-elected leader is highly revered. His popularity is almost as strong with whites as it is with the blacks and coloreds he initially supported. This results from Mandela’s decision to forgive his former white oppressors and, instead of seeking vengeance, encouraging reconciliation for the benefit of South Africa.
Without such a laudable promise it is possible that South Africa’s white population, decreasing as it is, may have altogether vanished. Concerns remain that, should Mandela die, the black majority – particularly those millions yet to escape a life of grinding poverty – may at last seek revenge against their former white rulers. A repeat of the land grabs in Zimbabwe under the Mugabe regime are envisaged by some in South Africa where large, profitable white farmsteads still exist, especially in the Western Cape.
Mandela has struggled with lung trouble for some years. He is thought to have contracted tuberculosis whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, when he worked in a quarry. Ironically, his status as a national safeguard against exacerbated racial tension has made him a prisoner today, at the age of ninety-four. Mandela has often spoken of his determination to live out his days quietly in the rural village of Qunu, his homeland in the Eastern Cape. On strict doctor’s orders, however, he has been forced to stay at his Houghton home in the Johannesburg suburbs so that he is close to expert medical attention should the need arise.
Unfortunately, that need is increasing at an alarming rate. Aside from his extended stay in December, Mandela visited hospital in February for a stomach condition. His detention in Johannesburg has likely arisen out of political necessity as much as from a genuine concern for his well-being. The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since Apartheid ended, is decreasing in popularity. Its leadership under President Jacob Zuma is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective, unable or unwilling to alleviate the vast income gap between the country’s rich and poor or confront the social and healthcare issues that continue to blight South Africa.
Zuma uses Mandela as a political tool. He portrays the two as being close and is always eager to convey his sincere concern each time the elder statesman falls ill. By associating himself with the country’s hero, Zuma hopes to retain a vestige of popularity that will need to carry him through another full term as the country’s leader. Whilst the ANC is losing supporters, no viable alternative has emerged to assume the mantle of leadership in South Africa. Zuma therefore, whilst confident of remaining in power, needs public support to increase or at the very least not to deteriorate further if his second term is not to become mired in discord and conflict.
Last year’s mining strikes and the subsequent shooting at the Marikana mine diminished his standing further and the challenge by youth league leader Julius Malema (who was subsequently expelled from the ANC) and his supporters suggests Zuma is no longer in touch with the country’s younger generation.
Therefore, it is in his interest for Mandela to live on as an ANC icon. How could a true South African, particularly a black South African, vote against Madiba? By using Mandela’s legacy of struggle and reconciliation, Zuma hopes to hold the country, and his administration, together. Whether this is just delaying an inevitable trauma which will erupt on Mandela’s death remains to be seen. What appears clear, however, is that the man revered throughout South Africa is being given little choice about how he wants to live the final few years of his life. And that is a tragedy that ranks among so many others in his lifetime.