Roy Robins: After Mandela

tags: South Africa, Nelson Mandela, apartheid, Roy Robins, ANC



Roy Robins is a writer based in Cape Town.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Late on Wednesday night, March 27, former South African president Nelson Mandela was admitted to an undisclosed hospital for a recurring lung infection. This is the third time Mandela has been hospitalized in recent months. He spent a weekend in hospital in early March for what the government described as a "check-up," and most of December in hospital, where he was treated for a lung infection and had his gallstones removed. The last time Mandela was seen in public was almost three years ago, at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup, in Johannesburg. But that doesn't mean that he's not still everywhere.

Take his "appearance" at the kickoff this January of the 29th African Cup of Nations, an intercontinental soccer tournament held every two years. The elaborate opening ceremony, celebrating African culture, was a feast of entertainment, music, and dancing; at one point, an enormous Mandela puppet took to the stage. Dressed in the former president's trademark loose, patterned shirt, the puppet swaggered, tottered, jilted, and jived. The audience applauded, for the puppet was instantly identifiable, instantly empathic, instantly adored. Everything else on the stage -- and there was much else, including hundreds of dancers in colorful traditional dress -- could well have been invisible. Yet there was something perfectly ironic about the puppet: in its  enormousness and vitality, it was somehow a better stand-in than Mandela himself, whose age and condition no longer allows him to take the stage.

The ailing former president has been squarely on South Africa's mind the last few months. At 94, he is frail and fading fast. Housebound and bedridden in his Johannesburg estate, he is rumored to be senile; some claim he no longer speaks at all. One especially devastating newspaper report, quoting his former wife, said that his "sparkle was fading."

Each time Mandela is admitted to hospital, a wall of silence goes up between Mandela's spokespeople and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, on the one side, and local and international media, on the other. The official ANC line is always the same: Mandela is "in good health," he is "stable," his medical examinations are "routine" -- nothing to see here, folks, move along. The unofficial line is decidedly different and, by all reasonable accounts, much closer to the truth....




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