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 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.

‘Rainbow nation’
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.

Archbishop’s plea
“Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It’s almost like spitting in Madiba’s face,” the archbishop said in a statement, directed at the sparring family members.

“Your anguish now is the nation’s anguish – and the world’s. We want to embrace you, to support you, to shine our love from Madiba through you.”

The remains of three of Mandela’s children – Makaziwe, Thembekile and Makgatho, who died in 1948, 1969 and 2005 respectively – were reburied in Qunu on Thursday, reversing a move two years ago by Mandela’s eldest grandson.

Mandla Mandela had relocated the remains to his village of Mveso, 20km away, as part of a plan to profit from his grandfather’s legacy, other family members claimed. He denied the charge, and accused them in turn of money-grabbing.

South Africans have recoiled at some aspects of the family’s behaviour, and there were jaw-dropping moments on Thursday when Mandla Mandela spoke at a press conference about the sexual history of other family members in order to affirm his credentials as the rightful head of the household.

Some believe such debate is not just distasteful but taboo, with claims from more tradition quarters that public discussion of Mandela’s health is “unAfrican”. Being South Africa, however, there is no consensus on the issue and yesterday the country’s chief rabbi Warren Goldstein welcomed the “obsession” with Mandela’s health, saying it was an expression of the esteem in which he is held.

That obsession is visible in the lines of photographers camped outside the hospital entrance, filming each visitor, and in the wall-to-wall press coverage, which at times descended into mere coverage of the coverage. The Star of Johannesburg was reduced to filing a dispatch on what the foreign media was eating. “The ABC News crew lunched on a cooked meal from a local Portuguese restaurant yesterday, a break from the normal quick chicken meals,” it revealed.

There has been bickering, too, over attempts to commercialise aspects of the outpouring of goodwill.

Outside the hospital in Pretoria, you can get a Mandela-style ANC beret for 60 Rand (€4.60), and an on-the-spot picture-and-print for 20 Rand (€1.50). A businessman was arrested earlier this week for flying a miniature helicopter over the hospital; he was hoping to sell the pictures to the media.