Mandela’s health overshadows Obama visit

Scene at the Medi-clinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria
Scene at the Medi-clinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria

by Laszlo Trankovits

“Viva Mandela! Viva Mandela!” sing the colourfully dressed women dancing in front of the hospital in Pretoria. Children bring pictures they have drawn, teddy bears, dolls and balloons, while adults lay down bouquets and greeting cards.

The closely guarded hospital is increasingly a place of pilgrimage. Behind its walls, national hero Nelson Mandela is struggling for his life.

At night, candles burn in front of the hospital. People are often seen praying together. During the day there is a lot of singing, especially the old anthems of the ANC liberation movement, now South Africa’s ruling party.

Everyone praises the achievements of the now seriously ill former president. A wealthy businessman was permitted to release 100 white doves into the sky on Tuesday in recognition of the work towards reconciliation of the father of South African democracy.

All of South Africa is agitated. Whether in offices, businesses or government offices, in the huts of townships such as Khayelitsha or the luxury villas in Camps Bay and Constantia: Everywhere, radios and televisions chatter constantly, everyone following the news spellbound.

The fate of the grand old man of South Africa is on everyone’s lips. “Let him die with dignity at last,” Cape Town businesswoman Glini Le Roux said, articulating what many are thinking.

The media, who have besieged the hospital for weeks in tents, caravans and satellite vans, have come in for criticism. Mandela’s eldest surviving daughter Makaziwe called foreign journalists camped outside the building “vultures” who were “waiting for the last carcasses.”

“There is an element of racism to their attitude. That is the image that we have as a family,” she said in a TV interview.

Mandela’s struggle is increasingly affecting public life. South Africa’s politicians have put aside all their plans. After President Jacob Zuma hurried to Mandela’s bedside on Wednesday, he announced he would not take part in a regional summit in Mozambique.

Many took this as a sign that Mandela was now dying – or even already dead, as some sensationalist reports had it. On Thursday, there was a surprise: Following his second visit to Mandela’s bedside in 24 hours, Zuma reported his condition had improved.

Mandela’s health has weighed on the visit of US President Barack Obama, who is expected in Johannesburg on Friday with an entourage of about 1,000 people.

“The US diplomats here are deeply concerned,” one of them said, given what would happen in the event of Mandela’s death and the subsequent national mourning.

They know that if Mandela died, the president’s agenda, with a visit to Soweto, academic honors in Johannesburg and Cape Town and a keynote speech in Cape Town – probably on the future of Africa – would be impossible. – dpa