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When a much loved family patriarch in their mid nineties is in critical condition in hospital, it is natural for there to be divisions in the family about treatment. Some will want the doctors "officiously to keep alive" while others will want to accept the inevitable and let them slip away as comfortably and peacefully as possible.

Imagine then when the patriarch is not only head of a family but is, quite rightly, regarded as the father of the nation, indeed many of all ages affectionately call him "Father". This is the drama being played out in South Africa. The life of Nelson Mandela - Tata Madiba - is drawing to its close.

18 years ago today there was a rugby football match in South Africa - the final of the Rugby World Cup. The South African Springboks were playing the All Blacks from New Zealand. In the Apartheid years, the Springboks could rightly have been called the "All Whites".  "Nie Blankes" were restricted to special pens in the stadia. At the end the President presented the William Ellis Trophy to the winning home team, proudly wearing a Springboks shirt. From that moment all South Africans - black, Indian, Chinese and "Cape Coloured" as well as white felt free to cheer the Springboks, unthinkable previously. That President was Nelson Mandela.

33 years ago I, along with many around the world, watched TV and waited (and waited!) to see an inmate convicted of a terrorist offence released. As prisoner #46664 walked through the prison gates into the arms of a huge crowd, he made this song an anachronism.
In 2001, like many including Barack Obama, I made the pilgrimage to Robben Island to see the tiny cell and blinding white quarry that were the features of his life there - and the cause of his sight and lung problems that persist. (I'll always be grateful to the staff at the gift shop for letting me play "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" on their CD player. They helped me fulfill a pledge I had made 35 years earlier to not revisit the country until I could freely play it on the island prison.) The short boat ride back into their history is a feature of many South African schoolchildren's lives. On my way there a teacher apologized for a couple of boys' play tussle disturbing me. I could not help reflect that in earlier days the boys; one white, one black would not have met for a few years and then quite likely on the battlefield or in the streets during rioting.

Madiba realized the vital importance of bringing all the tribes into the new republic. He recognized the importance of the national anthem Die Stem van Suid Afrika to the white tribes, especially the Afrikanders. On the other hand the anthem of the liberation struggle was "God Bless Africa" so he recommended both become the new republic's anthem. This was later changed so a "mash up" became one of the worlds most complex and unpronounceable national anthems. No only does it have two tunes combined, it has lines in four languages, including Xhosa which most outside Africa find impossible to pronounce because of the "click" sounds.
(Edit to include this video of the anthem:)
The problem with towering figures of both moral and political authority is that they are a hard act to follow. All the truer in South Africa where his immediate successor, Thabo Mbeke, managed to alienate his own party by his scheming and most of the world by his bizarre belief that anti-retrovirals to treat AIDS were a western plot:

He personally endorsed the work of dissident researchers, while his government rejected the use of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs on the grounds that they were toxic.
A theme of African self-reliance runs through Mr Mbeki's statements on Aids - that anti-Aids campaigns were a foreign vehicle to control African sexuality, and that ARV drugs were of use mostly to increase the profits of Western pharmaceutical companies.
Jacob Zuma, the current President, had an even stranger idea that if he showered after having sex with an HIV positive woman (he was alleged to have raped), it would protect him from contracting the virus.  

Under the two, the ANC has become virtually the only party in a near one party state - perhaps a reason why the electorate are becoming disinterested. Even the once mighty National Party - the Afrikaaners' conduit for control - has been subsumed into the ANC leaving the Democratic Alliance (the successor to the Liberal Party) as the only real opposition. Politics has moved to feature conflicts between the different factions in the ANC and with the trades union.

All the time these politicians have used the name of Nelson Mandela to legitimize their own actions. Even now Zuma is getting in on the act and playing the prayer leader:

Mr Zuma said on Monday he had found Mr Mandela asleep, but had spoken to his wife and medical teams.

"All of us in the country should accept the fact that Madiba [Nelson Mandela's clan name] is now old. As he ages, his health will... trouble him and I think what we need to do as a country is to pray for him."

In the words of his daughter Makaziwe:
"Other people want to lecture us on how we should behave, and what we should do. Really, it's our dad, it's the children's grandfather. We've never had him in our life for the better part of our years. This is in a sense quality and sacred time for us, and I would expect the world to really back off and leave us alone."
For the rest of us, we should respect the wishes of his family and perhaps recognize that Madiba needs to take one more step on his long walk - to go gently into that good night.

Originally posted to Lib Dem FoP on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 08:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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