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The meaning of Mandela

It is easy to forget that behind the icon there is a private man

As much loved icon Nelson Mandela hovers in the twilight zone between life and death, South Africa is a nation holding its collective breath, trying to imagine a life without him. South Africans from all walks of life are holding nationwide vigils and prayer meetings. Crowds of well-wishers jostle with a huge international media contingent around the Mandela home and the Pretoria hospital where he lies. Politicians put everything on hold and Mandela’s condition threatens to upstage the visit of US President Barack Obama. It is a surreal moment.

In this state of limbo, we reflect anew with awe and wonder at the meaning of this phenomenon that is Mandela. His life must be one of the most examined in history, the subject of numerous biographies, political studies and countless articles. While journalists across the globe are seized with the issue of Mandela’s imminent demise, I hesitate to add my voice to the cacophony, but feel the need to reflect on Nelson Mandela, the private man, husband of Graca, father of Makaziwe, Zenani and Zindzi, grandfather and great grandfather.

Since his admission to hospital on June 8, the Mandela family has been subjected to unprecedented and unrelenting media intrusion, prompting his eldest daughter Makaziwe to liken the international media to “vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo”. In an interview with the national broadcaster, the SABC, she complained about news crews that are obstructing the entry to the hospital, saying “They violate all boundaries”.

I can identify with the frustration of family members at this time. Mandela has meant so much to so many people that it is easy to forget that behind the icon there is a private man with a family that was deprived of his presence during his decades of imprisonment and, after his release in February 1990, forced to share him with the African National Congress, the movement he led, as well as the nation and the world. Now they are deprived of that intimate quiet space to spend the last days with their loved one and come to terms with their impending loss. It is yet another sacrifice they have to make.

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