Pillars of mutual support

2011-02-01 13:11

As the world waited with bated breath for news of Nelson Mandela’s health, many saw the reaction of his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and erroneously assumed the worst.

For 27 years, Madikizela-Mandela was the stalking horse for her jailed husband and the public symbol of his unwavering militancy. For about 44 hours this week, she once again ­became the barometer of public ­sentiment in a sea of confusion.

On Wednesday the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a terse press statement that Mandela had been hospitalised for “routine tests”. Then came hours of stonewalling by the foundation, the ANC and the Mandela family, which in ­effect fuelled a frenzied rumour mill.

As hours turned into days of ­obfuscating silence, reports of a ­distraught Madikizela-Mandela leaving the Milpark hospital in tears fuelled rumours of the former president’s worsening condition.

When the government and the foundation finally found their feet – after days behind closed doors – acting president Kgalema Motlanthe sought to reassure the public that Madiba was “in good spirits, joking and teasing Aunt Graça and Mam Winnie”.

In keeping with their history of mutual support in times of strife, both Madiba’s current wife, Graça Machel, and his former wife spent most of the week visiting the former president at the hospital where he was undergoing treatment for an acute respiratory infection.

The former president, revered as an international icon of peace and reconciliation, has proved himself equally adept at managing the ­tensions of a blended family. And his wives, through a friendship that has endured over several decades, have consistently challenged the ­stereotype of the inevitable war ­between the current wife and the ex.

In 2008, when Kefuoe Seakamela, Madikizela-Mandela’s seven-year old grand-daughter, drowned at ­Sacred Heart College in Observatory, it was Machel who comforted Madikizela-Mandela at the little girl’s funeral. When Mandela celebrated his 90th birthday at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, Madikizela-Mandela and Machel were seen giggling happily, with their arms around each other, ­behind a smiling Madiba.

On Friday Motlanthe sought to ­reassure the public and the media about the former president’s health.

But it was his comments about Madiba’s teasing of his current and former wife that elicited considerable tweeting and updating on social networks, including this update on the Facebook page of actress Tselane Tambo: “Madiba has gone home! He was, they say, flirting with both wife and ex-wife. He has his groove back. LOL! We can all exhale!”

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