The Lion In Winter

6 minute read

He’s everywhere. Shops from Cape Town to Johannesburg sell Mandela plates and Mandela portraits, Mandela coasters, Mandela dolls, even Mandela-shaped chocolates. Shoppers in Johannesburg’s ritziest mall, which has renamed itself Mandela Square, can gaze up at a new 6-m bronze Mandela statue. Nelson Mandela, says artist Janet Wilson, “has become like a Coke sign. He’s part of the everyday.” And yet the very sight of him is a comfort to millions. “There’s an aura about him,” says political consultant Aubrey Matshiqi, 41. “The first time I saw him I actually wanted to cry and I don’t know why.” Journalist Charlene Smith, who has written one of dozens of books about Mandela, understands the feeling. “South Africa was a nation of abused children,” she says. “He came in and loved us all.”

Madiba, as Mandela is affectionately called for his Xhosa clan name, retired in 1999 after just one term as President, but even in the winter of his life, the tall, stooped, increasingly frail old man remains his country’s conscience on issues ranging from how to tackle aids to South Africa’s stance on the war in Iraq. The Mandela factor will be at play in this week’s election. “He’s the one who fought for us,” says Leocardia Mchunu, a child-care worker who, like many South Africans, will vote for the A.N.C. above all because of her loyalty to Mandela. Even so, South Africa must begin to confront a question few can bear to face: How will the revolution continue once the revolutionary is gone?

One person who thinks he knows the answer is Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki. South Africa’s second black President took on much of the daily running of the country while still Mandela’s deputy, and assumed the presidency in 1999. But the scholarly, British-educated Mbeki was always going to remain in the shadow of a global icon. Though erudite and a skilled political fighter, Mbeki lacks Mandela’s instinctive ability to tap the national mood. “With Mandela we had a man who brought hope and promise and reconciliation. But he was what I would call the nonexecutive head of South Africa Inc.,” says Tokyo Sexwale, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island and is now one of South Africa’s most successful black businessmen. “We needed an executive chairman and CEO … that’s Mbeki.”

a.n.c. insiders say Mbeki resents the cult of personality around Mandela, especially, says one former longtime party official who knows both men, because “Mbeki helped strategize Mandela’s persona. It was carefully thought out.” Of course it helps that Mandela is naturally charming; during this election campaign Mbeki has tried to highlight his own charm, mixing more with ordinary folk, sitting on the living room floor listening to complaints.

The President has seemed much more approachable than he normally does.

For the first few years after Mandela stepped down, he and Mbeki “didn’t have a constructive working relationship,” says this insider. “Mandela can be very old-school patrician, and treated Mbeki like a ‘clever young man’.” The rift was never as great as the press made out, but they did differ on the life-and-death issue of HIV/AIDS: Mandela urging a fight against a new enemy, Mbeki more inclined to debate the science. Mandela, who did little to combat the pandemic as President, is now one of the most vocal campaigners for aids education and access to drugs. “We must not continue debating, to be arguing when people are dying,” he told a South African newspaper in early 2002, soon after Mbeki had questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Mbeki was said to be furious, and A.N.C. elders stepped in to heal the rift.

These days Mandela steers away from criticizing policy. People close to them say the two men are respectful of each other. At an A.N.C. rally in Soweto last week the two appeared on the same stage, albeit briefly. Mandela defended Mbeki on the controversial issue of presidential term limits: an opposition leader has suggested that Mbeki is thinking of changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. “Now that the President has answered in the most unequivocal terms, we have not heard any one of them apologizing to the President, or to us, for that matter,” Mandela told the crowd.

Mandela, 85, now spends much of his time working for his Children’s Fund, which he founded in 1994, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which raises money and conducts research into everything from aids to democracy in Africa. With mates like Bono and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, he lent his support to a campaign — dubbed 46664 after his number in prison — which raises money for the Global Fund for aids through music. He travels the world — the Middle East, Europe, throughout Africa — using his ideas and moral weight to try to solve conflicts, and simply addressing fawning audiences. He also speaks out on world events: most notably last year when he tore into President Bush for invading Iraq and warned of an arrogant America committing “atrocities.” At home, he occasionally offers a few quiet words to calm lingering political tensions — as he did in February to help quell violence between a.n.c. supporters and those from the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party.

Adored though he is, Mandela’s legacy is the focus of fresh debate. He may have united us, goes an argument that’s cropping up in newspapers, but perhaps he set the country up for disappointment. Ordinary day-to-day reconciliation can never match his rainbow vision. “Whites eagerly embraced Mandela, but not the race from which he came,” says political consultant Matshiqi. “The Mandela era created the delusion of a rainbow nation, which masked a lot of the problems between black and white people in this country.”

As he has aged, Mandela’s mortality has become more apparent. He grows tired more easily. He can be short tempered. His doctors insist he rest more often, which he does by spending time with his grandkids or his third wife, Graça Machel, widow of a beloved Mozambican leader, Samora Machel. When German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder visited South Africa last January, Mandela stood him up, preferring to extend his vacation with Machel on the Indian Ocean resort island of Mauritius. “We’ve put him on a pedestal and expect him to behave in a certain way,” says granddaughter Ndileka Mandela, who met her grandfather for the first time at 16, when she visited him in prison on Robben Island. “He can be very harsh, especially with his family — strict. When I dropped out of university, he really rapped me over the knuckles.” But Ndileka says, away from the public eye, Mandela is “a sweet pensioner.”

So what happens when the father of the rainbow nation is no longer there to wipe its tears and heal its wounds? Though some worry that the country’s gains may slip away when he passes, that’s unlikely. Nelson Mandela showed South Africa that dreams were possible. Even when he is gone, his dreams will live on.

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