Mandela: a victim of his family?
The former South African president spent his 95th birthday on life support – but are some of his offspring determined to keep him alive at any cost, asks David Blair
In townships across South Africa, thousands gave food to the poor or performed good works in tribute to a silent nonagenarian lying stricken on a hospital bed.
The fervour of the celebration of Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday last Thursday showed – if anyone had any doubts – how much his compatriots cherish a man who serves as perhaps their only genuinely national hero.
Left unspoken, however, was another reason for the enthusiasm: this was a birthday that many feared Mr Mandela would not see. The rejoicing mingled with relief that he still lives, if only just.
It has now been 42 days since he entered intensive care in the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria. For the first time, the government then described his condition as "critical". But he was also said to be "stable", and that formula was honed into an official mantra.
Over time, it has become clear that "critical but stable" is the chosen euphemism for the fact that he is now on life support and breathing only with the aid of a ventilator. Mr Mandela may squeeze the hands of visitors, raise his eyebrows, watch television, listen to music or even – if some of the more optimistic accounts are to be believed – smile with delight when his children appear at his bedside. But he has, by any account, lost the power of speech.
If you are 95 and left silently dependent on a machine, you must rely on your family to take the vital decisions. If there is no realistic prospect of recover and if the patient has left no instructions to the contrary, then the doctors are likely to advise that nature should be allowed to take its course, leaving the family with a traumatic, if somewhat inevitable, decision to make.
When Mr Mandela led the struggle against apartheid, he was campaigning for the principle that no human being should be treated differently because of accidents of nature, such as the colour of their skin. Yet, having suffered the kind of accident that nature eventually visits upon most nonagenarians, the sadness is that Mr Mandela is now being treated differently precisely because of who he is.
Most tragically of all, he cannot rely on his family to unite and take decisions on his behalf.
In a long life, Mr Mandela has married three times and fathered six children. He has endured more than his share of bereavement: his first daughter and two sons predeceased him, along with his first wife, Evelyn.
Today, he has three surviving daughters, 17 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, along with one divorced wife, Winnie, and his current wife, Graca.
Put delicately, this large and disparate Mandela clan finds it difficult to agree on anything. Put more bluntly, some of his offspring have ruthlessly exploited his name for their own benefit while conducting tawdry public feuds with one another.
Only this week, two of his grand-daughters, Swati Dlamini and Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway, chose the eve of his 95th birthday to launch a range of T-shirts with the slogans "Legend" and "Long Walk to Freedom".
The Mandela legacy, they insist, belongs to them. Not that the family is by any means agreed on what this actually means.
It seems incredible, but at the moment when Mr Mandela was rushed to hospital on June 8, no one knew where he would have been buried had the worst happened. He had, naturally enough, expressed the wish to rest alongside his three deceased children in the family graveyard in his home town of Qunu.
But there was a problem: the remains of his children were no longer there. Two years ago, Mandla Mandela, his oldest grandson, dug them up and reburied them in the village of Mvezo, where he serves as local chief and has grand plans to turn his domain into a tourist attraction.
Earlier this month, the rest of the family had to take Mandla to court in order to have the remains of Mr Mandela's children disinterred again and returned to their original resting place.
Along the way, the family have given wildly varying accounts of his condition. A lawyer acting for his eldest daughter, Makaziwe, told the court that Mr Mandela was in a "permanent vegetative state and is assisted in breathing by a life support machine".
The statement continued: "The Mandela family have been advised by the medical practitioners that his life-support machine should be switched off. Rather than prolonging his suffering, the Mandela family is exploring this option as a very real probability."
But the suggestion that he was comatose and the doctors had advised the withdrawal of treatment was flatly denied by other members of the family. His wife, Graca, described her husband as "fine", adding that although he "sometimes may be uncomfortable, very few times he is in pain".
The conclusion is obvious: both of these statements cannot be true. Either Mr Mandela is in a "permanent vegetative state", or he is "fine". He cannot be both. It follows that either his daughter or his wife have not told the truth.
In fairness, the government appears to have been a truthful source, if only because its terse updates about Mr Mandela's health, crafted to be uninformative, stick rigidly to the "critical but stable" formula.
Meanwhile, the doctors treating him have remained silent and anonymous. Although he lies in a normal private hospital, his clinical team is believed to consist of military personnel, which presumably binds them to secrecy.
In recent days, the word has been more upbeat. President Jacob Zuma has voiced the hope that Mr Mandela will soon be discharged and allowed to go home.
Meanwhile, his daughter Zindzi hailed "dramatic progress" on Sky News last week, saying: "I visited him yesterday and he was watching television with headphones. He gave us a huge smile and raised his hand." She confidently forecast: "I should think he will be going home any time soon."
Perhaps that will happen and this episode will pass. But there will, of course, be a moment when the crisis will recur. If so, few believe that Mr Mandela could safely rely on his loved ones to come together and make a decision in his best interests.
If the family are in their usual state of poisonous deadlock and antagonism, would any doctor accept responsibility for allowing nature to take its course? With any other nonagenarian in a similar position, the answer might be "yes". For Mr Mandela, however, it would almost certainly be "no".
The world has been brutal to Mr Mandela, locking him up for 27 years and embroiling him in a wicked system of racial oppression. On present form, its final disservice will be to treat him differently from any other 95 year-old in his condition.
His family should heed the wisdom of Andrew Mlangeni, an 87-year-old who spent almost two decades with Mr Mandela on Robben Island.
When his old friend entered hospital last month, Mr Mlangeni declared: "The family must release him so that God may have his own way. Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow. We will say thank you, God, you have given us this man, and we will release him." (© Daily Telegraph, London)