How do you say goodbye to Nelson Mandela?
The question South Africa has been grappling with over last few weeks
A little girl has her photograph taken as she and her family pay tribute to Nelson Mandela at the memorial wall near the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A barrage of coloured balloons was released outside the Pretoria Mediclinic Heart hospital yesterday, the first 27 representing the number of years Nelson Mandela spent in prison.
A choir from a local church sang outside the front gates. Families joined public servants, office workers and even some tourists in queuing up to be photographed against the backdrop of flowers and banners whose messages ranged from the personal to the political: “Today, we have better schools, I receive grant all thanks to you . . . You taught selflessness and forgiveness . . . We need you Madiba.”
How do you say goodbye to Nelson Mandela? That’s the question South Africa has been grappling with since he was admitted to hospital here with a lung infection 28 days ago.
There is no easy answer, for Mandela was not just the leader of a liberation struggle, nor just the father of South Africa’s “Rainbow nation”. He is a man loved and revered to a degree unmatched by any political figure in the democratic world.
Yesterday there was better news: the one-time boxer and cross-country runner was rallying, according to South Africa’s presidency.
There has been scepticism about the accuracy of some of the official updates on Mandela’s health but this one had the backing of his friend, the anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg, who said the elder statesman was “definitely not unconscious” and had been able to recognise him. Moreover, Goldberg said, doctors told him “they think he has a very good chance of recovery”.
“He is clearly very ill but he was conscious and he tried to move his mouth and eyes when I talked to him . . . It’s remarkable what a tough old man he is.”
Goldberg said he had visited his friend after Mandela’s wife Graça Machel asked him to go, “just to give him mental stimulation”. The government has been liaising with the family about communicating on Mandela’s condition but says it is prohibited from going into detail because of patient confidentiality and a sense of respect for the former president.
However, it was pressed yesterday into denying a report that Mandela was in a “permanent vegetative state” on life-support. The claim was made in court papers lodged in a legal dispute between members of Mandela’s family over his likely final resting place.
Describing Mandela’s condition as still critical but stable, government spokesman Mac Maharaj stressed it was committed to giving “reliable information” to the public. “The former president is being treated by a panel of medical experts,” he said, “and under that panel the team of doctors is treating him on a 24-hour basis. Our reports are based on the reports from the doctors treating him.”
The presidency has been accused of giving misleading accounts of Mandela’s health in the past, and earlier this month it was forced to admit that the ambulance that took Mandela to hospital broke down on a motorway, causing a 40-minute delay. Meanwhile, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu urged Mandela’s family to come together after a very public falling out this week over the relocating of the family grave between two villages in the former president’s home province of Eastern Cape.