Nelson Mandela: As an icon fades away

2013-11-24 14:00

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Five-and-a-half months, 24 weeks, 170 days. Nearly half a year. That’s how long Nelson Mandela has been ill?–?critically so. Debora Patta reports

Nelson Mandela was hospitalised on June?8 this year, supposedly battling a problem that has plagued him since he contracted tuberculosis while in prison.

It’s a pesky lung infection that just won’t go away.

But towards the end of June, it was clear that this was something far more serious. News had broken that on the night Mandela was rushed to hospital, his condition

was so perilous that he had to be resuscitated.

Then, a horrified nation learnt that Mandela’s ambulance broke down for more than 40 minutes on a frosty winter night.

Later in June, when President Jacob Zuma declared that Mandela’s condition had deteriorated from serious to critical, the world hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.

Since then, the flow of information on Madiba’s health from official government sources?–never particularly helpful at the best of times?–?has virtually dried up.

The oft-repeated mantra “critical but stable” has joined the lexicon of South African phrases that are loaded with meaning, yet are meaningless.

In the context of Mandela’s health it could have multiple meanings, none of them particularly transparent or helpful.

But this did not halt the international interest in the story.

Foreign TV networks were literally camping outside the hospital waiting for news: 85 days of waiting.

We waited not because, as has been suggested by some critics, we were vultures hungry for a bad news story.

We waited because news of Mandela is important and government updates were unhelpful.

Nelson Mandela is a global icon, loved and revered across the world. Dozens of countries have streets, buildings and places of interest named after him.

He remains the reason that so many people across the globe are vested in South Africa’s success as a fledgling democracy.

We waited because Nelson Mandela and, by extension, South Africa, still matters.

There was a flurry of activity on September 1 when Mandela was moved back home. Usually a discharge from hospital indicates improvement, but there was no change in Mandela’s condition.

The discharge was an admission that there was nothing more doctors could do.?He was sent home to see out his final days, however long that may be.

Camp Mandela moved too.

The only difference in the change of location? Houghton was a more upmarket and pleasant camping environment than the grubby street outside the Pretoria Heart Hospital.

Days have turned to weeks, and weeks to months.

This is probably the single biggest budget-spend on a single African story that most foreign media organisations, in particular television, has made in years.

It is money spent on a story that is like no other, with its own peculiar rhythms?–?whispers, innuendo, raised hopes and dashed hopes. And the reaction from official sources has been to conceal.

This reaction was not helped by former Cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale saying at the media briefing ahead of the recent movie premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom that “Mandela says of his health, ‘I am not ill, just old’”.

It is a disingenuous comment at best, giving the impression that Mandela made this comment recently when he clearly has said no such thing – at least not in the past six months.

Mandela has not spoken for a very long time. That much at least was made clear in an interview his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, gave to a Sunday newspaper last week in which she said Madiba had lost his voice.

He is no longer talking “because of all the tubes that are in his mouth to clear [fluid from] the lungs.

He can’t actually articulate anything?...?He communicates with the face, you see. But the doctors have told us they hope to recover his voice. I have heard this nonsense that he is on life support?–?he is not,” said Madikizela-Mandela.

Other sources close to the situation paint a different picture?–some more bleak, others more upbeat. Everyone has a different interpretation of what “critical but stable” means.

As for the semantics around “life support”, the bottom line is that Mandela cannot breathe on his own. He needs life-sustaining medical intervention.

Zuma visited Mandela this week for the first time since he was taken back home.

The formal statement reads as follows: “The health of the former president remains much the same as it was when President Zuma last visited him, which is stable but critical, while Madiba continues to respond to treatment.”

Once again, a statement full of contradictions and, for the most part, devoid of meaning.

This has been the biggest frustration covering the Mandela story this year:?the lack of clear, transparent communication.

And into this vacuum of information creeps the suspicion that perhaps we are not being told the full truth.

Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that the Madiba we know?–?the one with that twinkle in his eye, a handshake that greets everyone as if they are old friends, the razor-sharp mind and the cunning ability to win over even the most hardened of foes – is no longer present.

As his old comrade Ahmed Kathrada described him a few months ago, he is “a shell of his former self”.

The visitingforeign media have long since left. Those that remain are permanently based in South Africa and covering other stories now.

The street outside Mandela’s house is quieter, but doctors still visit frequently and in significant numbers.

Oxygen tanks are delivered regularly. Madiba’s bedroom is a virtual 24-hour intensive care hospital unit.

The family talks in whispers around him and his wife, Graça Machel waits, often just sitting and reading at his bedside.

This was not the passing anyone imagined.

But still we remain Madiba’s children who believe in miracles because we are the miracle nation.

But in the absence of that miracle, all we can do is be comforted in knowing that our beloved Tata is loved and, hopefully, in no pain.

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