Death has been Nelson Mandela’s friend for 50 years. But when you’re 93 and check into hospital, as he did this weekend, it is natural that some may fuss. His countrymen took to churches to pray for him and Twitter went into overdrive when abdominal discomfort sent him to the hospital. The beloved South African was released with a clean bill of health after a minor diagnostic procedure.
“The doctors have decided to send him home as the diagnostic procedure he underwent did not indicate anything seriously wrong with him,” President Jacob Zuma’s office said in a statement.
Mandela, who is said to be recovering at his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, has defeated prostate cancer and other ailments. Although age has slowed him, he still has a daily bowl of porridge at 5 a.m., exercises a little, follows the news and is less perturbed by ill health than those around him. His most acute frustration is his difficulty in mobility; his feet in particular often give him trouble. He’s frail, and spends most of his days in a favorite chair. His remarkable memory has lost its acuity, and he tires easily. His protective family allows few visitors.
Mandela made his peace with death in 1963, when the South African government sought to hang him for the treason of fighting for black rights.
Albert Camus’ “First Letter to a German Friend,” written in July 1943 in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, influenced Mandela. Camus talks of the difficulties the French Resistance had resorting to violence: “We had to overcome our weakness for mankind … that deep-rooted conviction of ours that no victor ever pays, whereas any mutilation of mankind is irrevocable.”
Twenty-one years later, Nelson Mandela, a prosperous 45-year-old lawyer, stood in the dock of the Pretoria Supreme Court and said: “We of the ANC [African National Congress] had always stood for a nonracial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart ... But … 50 years of nonviolence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation ... violence in this country was inevitable … when the government met our peaceful demands with force.”
Camus wrote: “We had to make a long detour … that regard for truth imposes on intelligence.” Mandela told the court: “This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”
Inviting the noose, Mandela said: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society ... If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He was sentenced to life in jail. The early years at Robben Island were hard. The prison was completed in such haste that the concrete floors were still damp when Mandela and other black leaders arrived. The warders were brutal. Johnson Mlambo, also jailed in 1963, was singled out by warder Piet Kleynhans, who said he did not move enough rocks. Years after the incident, Mlambo struggled to tell me what happened next. Kleynhans ordered other prisoners to bury him up to his head in a hole in the ground and then told him to open his mouth wide. Kleynhans unzipped his pants and urinated over Mlambo.
Mandela wrote: “Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve… We supported each other … [and] multiplied whatever courage we had individually.”
Tokyo Sexwale, who met Mandela in jail and is as close to him as a son, told me: “There are four things you have to learn as a prisoner. First, there are the walls. You ... can see the walls and forever be a prisoner, or you can break through ... and have the whole world before you in your mind. The second challenge is the warders... you had to turn them ... The third challenge is your friends … such difficult conditions bring out the best and worst in people... [The] greatest challenge is yourself. The enemy within.” He is one of those who, when they meet Mandela, envelop him in a hug as they walk to steady the old man.
Mandela said the enemy within asks, “Did I make the right decision in leaving my family and letting my children grow up without security?” He says he “would have done the same.” But that did not ease his guilt, and since his release he has indulged his family. The Mandela name now carries significant wealth.
The travails of his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and their daughter, Zindzi, who even now is being sued for millions are legendary. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren are, with few exceptions, venal. One grandson is involved in a mining venture with the son of President Jacob Zuma that is notorious for not paying the mineworkers.
Mandela’s joy has been Graca Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique whom he married on his 80th birthday. Some of his grandchildren have referred to her as a kwerekere—a derogatory term for a foreigner.
South Africa fears Mandela’s passing—a reason his hospital scare sent such an alarm across the nation, and why so many were relieved when doctors discharged him after a night’s stay and a keyhole operation to check into a persistent abdominal problem. Mandela’s presidency (1994–1999) proved to South Africans that they could be great. It was a period so brief, so beloved. While he rarely comments on South African politics since leaving office in 1999, it is known that he loathed President Thabo Mbeki, his successor and an AIDS-denialist. Mandela, who lost a son to AIDS, defied Mbeki to attend global AIDS conferences.
When Jacob Zuma came to Robben Island as a prisoner, he had only four years of education but determination. Robben Island was his university, as it was for many others. Mandela hoped that the deeply ambitious former head of the ANC’s Intelligence Unit-in-exile would be a man of the people. But under Zuma South Africa is riven with corruption.
In July 2011, Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of the powerful, two-million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions, and a man Mandela respects, condemned a “powerful, corrupt, predatory elite combined with a conservative populist agenda [that has] harness[ed] the ANC to advance their interests.”
Ostentation has even found its way into Mandela’s wealthy foundations. Officials from those foundations for the poor usually travel first class.
When Mandela and his old friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, meet, they mourn the South Africa of their dreams: the rainbow nation lost before it achieved the pot of gold: economic justice for all, and unshakable political freedom. Sometimes Tutu weeps. Mandela sits quietly his eyes glossy. He dreams still.
At the May 2003 funeral of Walter Sisulu, his friend of 62 years, Mandela said:
“I now know that when my time comes, Walter will be there to meet me… cajoling me with one of his favorite songs:
Libhaliwe na iGama lakho
Vuma silibhale kuloMqulu
(Has your name been enrolled in the struggle for freedom? Permit us to register you in the struggle for freedom.)
Walter’s daughter, Lindiwe Sisulu, who is South Africa’s defense minister, said with typical Sisulu humor after Mandela was discharged from hospital, “He’s as fine as can be at his age ... and handsome.” Mandela will have chuckled upon hearing that; vanity has no age.