Mandela illness causes nation to consider uncertain future
HE gave up the presidency in the last century, officially retired over a decade ago and has said nothing in public since a tragic announcement in 2005 that his son had died of Aids.
Nelson Mandela, living in seclusion at the age of 94 behind whitewashed walls in Johannesburg, wields no political power or behind-the-scenes influence.
Yet the disclosure that he has been hospitalised for the fourth time in just over six months caused millions of his compatriots to catch their breath yesterday. It was "serious this time", said Mac Maharaj, President Jacob Zuma's spokesman.
A persistent lung infection had recurred, causing Mr Mandela to be taken from his home in Johannesburg to an undisclosed hospital in Pretoria in the early hours of yesterday morning. "At 1.30am today the doctors came to the conclusion that his condition had deteriorated enough that it warranted hospital treatment," Mr Maharaj said.
Later, an official statement described Mr Mandela's condition as "serious but stable", adding that he was "receiving expert medical care" and that doctors were doing "everything possible to make him better and comfortable".
He was said to be breathing unaided, which was described as "a positive sign".
However, news of Mr Mandela's hospitalisation forced his wife, Graca Machel, to cancel an appearance yesterday at a summit in London. She was due to deliver an address on nutrition, but chose instead to fly back to South Africa and attend her husband's bedside, along with his daughter Maki Mandela and other members of his large family.
In March, the last time that Mr Mandela was admitted to hospital, his eldest grandson, Mandla, said that his family were under no illusions about his state of health. "We have been blessed as a family to have my grandfather all these years with us," he said. "We have cherished every moment and continue to do so."
But while South Africans may have had time to prepare for his passing and the sentiment that his life should not be prolonged unnecessarily is heard with increasing frequency in discussions about his health, there is a sense of trepidation about what awaits the "rainbow nation" without its founding father.
Even in secluded retirement, Mr Mandela is part of the fabric of the nation's political settlement. He serves as a silent guarantor of the democratic, harmonious and non-racial South Africa that he sought to bring into being.
For as long as he is around, South Africans believe their present leaders will be slightly more devoted to the principles of the nation's rebirth.