Douglas Foster: Mandela's Mortality Is South Africa's Fear

Roundup: Talking About History

Douglas Foster, associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University, is the author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa, which will be released in September.

"Everybody dies."
That's what Nelson Mandela began telling startled associates years ago, even seeming cheerful at the prospect. He retired for the first time in 1999, when he stepped down asSouth Africa's first post-apartheid president. Then, in 2004, he announced that he would "retire from retirement," his sly way of signaling that this time, he really meant to step away from the outsized role he had played in the country for more than 60 years. "Don't call me, I'll call you," he said on that occasion.
Mandela has seemed at peace with that decision in the years since, enjoying family at his home in rural Qunu and largely staying out of national politics. As he celebrated his 94th birthday this week, though, many of his countrymen fretted about the prospect of a South Africa without him.
In recent years, reports that Mandela was in poor health, no matter how minor his illness, have sparked public frenzies, including periodic media scrums outside hospitals where he was being treated. Websites operated by right-wing whites have even prematurely announced Mandela's death online, warning of secret plans for a racial bloodbath. It is a measure of his hold on the imaginations of even the country's most racist whites that they believe Mandela's continued existence is somehow crucial to protecting them from annihilation.
For the vast majority of South Africans, mostly black and poor, the reluctance to let go of Madiba (his clan name) or "Tata" (grandfather), as he's widely known, is understandable. It is a standard trope, after all, to ascribe the supposed "miracle" of the largely peaceful transition in 1994 to the exercise of "Madiba's magic."
And beneath the worry and fears about Mandela's death — on the part of blacks and whites alike — is a disturbing truth: that the promise Mandela made to help found a nonracial, nonsexist, egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa has foundered in the last decade...

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