For the past 48 hours, South Africa has been bracing itself for a devastating loss: unlike many of the woes today, it is neither economic nor tangible. What the country is fearing is the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s most beloved and iconic figure.
Jailed for his anti-apartheid work and released after 27 years in prison in 1990, Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994. He was instrumental in uniting the deeply divided country and eradicating the scourge of the apartheid regime. Internationally, Mandela has become one of the most famous and respected political figures in history for his patience, forgiveness, and accomplishments.
For years, South Africans have spoken fearfully about what would happen when Mandela passed away. His very presence is influential, akin to Gandhi’s in India. Peace between the different racial groups in the country – not only whites and blacks, but also between the Zulus and Xhosas, have, in the past, relied on his leadership.
He stepped down from politics in 2004 and withdrew more and more from public spotlight. His political life took a heavy toll on his personal one, with two marriages ending in divorce and his children growing up largely in his absence. Mandela himself spoke of his desire to enjoy his family at the end of his life, and the burden of political responsibility.
Yet recently, the BBC published an article with the heart-wrenching headline, “Time to let Mandela go?” The truth is that Mandela’s health has been failing for some time. As a country that is so ethnically diverse and has such a scarred history, the population is naturally on tenterhooks, following Mandela’s condition closely. Recent hospitalizations have scared South Africans regarding the true state of the leader’s health, which is being kept largely under wraps by close family and friends.
South Africa has done exceedingly well in recent years, hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and impressing the world with its improvements in healthcare and education. Though it still suffers deep divides and extreme poverty, it is impossible to deny that South Africa has great potential. Mandela’s failing health has little real implication for the politics or economy of a country, but potential for a huge ideological fallout, with suppressed resentments in all ethnic groups threatening to burst forward after his death.
What foreign correspondents are hoping is that South Africans will realize that Mandela’s legacy will be no weaker for his death. Tragic, but inevitable, Mandela’s friends have urged South Africans not to hold Mandela as the sole factor in South Africa’s continued unification, but to accept his mortality and move forward in maintaining his legacy. As political analyst Ralph Mathegka stated, “The best way to honor him would be to carry on his values of tolerance and conversation.”
– Farahnaz Mohammed