The meaning of Mandela

It is easy to forget that behind the icon there is a private man

Written by Elinor Sisulu | Published: June 29, 2013 12:11 am

It is easy to forget that behind the icon there is a private man

As much loved icon Nelson Mandela hovers in the twilight zone between life and death,South Africa is a nation holding its collective breath,trying to imagine a life without him. South Africans from all walks of life are holding nationwide vigils and prayer meetings. Crowds of well-wishers jostle with a huge international media contingent around the Mandela home and the Pretoria hospital where he lies. Politicians put everything on hold and Mandela’s condition threatens to upstage the visit of US President Barack Obama. It is a surreal moment.

In this state of limbo,we reflect anew with awe and wonder at the meaning of this phenomenon that is Mandela. His life must be one of the most examined in history,the subject of numerous biographies,political studies and countless articles. While journalists across the globe are seized with the issue of Mandela’s imminent demise,I hesitate to add my voice to the cacophony,but feel the need to reflect on Nelson Mandela,the private man,husband of Graca,father of Makaziwe,Zenani and Zindzi,grandfather and great grandfather.

Since his admission to hospital on June 8,the Mandela family has been subjected to unprecedented and unrelenting media intrusion,prompting his eldest daughter Makaziwe to liken the international media to “vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo”. In an interview with the national broadcaster,the SABC,she complained about news crews that are obstructing the entry to the hospital,saying “They violate all boundaries”.

I can identify with the frustration of family members at this time. Mandela has meant so much to so many people that it is easy to forget that behind the icon there is a private man with a family that was deprived of his presence during his decades of imprisonment and,after his release in February 1990,forced to share him with the African National Congress,the movement he led,as well as the nation and the world. Now they are deprived of that intimate quiet space to spend the last days with their loved one and come to terms with their impending loss. It is yet another sacrifice they have to make.

A few years ago,a journalist from an international news network asked to interview me “in preparation for when Mandela dies.” I advised him that he would not get far with this approach because it is culturally not acceptable to talk about a living person as if they are already dead,and in any case,how could he be sure that Mandela won’t outlive both of us. I feel the same way about media demands for more detailed reports about his condition. Underlying these demands is the question that no one can answer,not the family,not the South African presidency and not the doctors. Makaziwe has said that while anything can happen at any moment,as long as they can hold his hand and as long as he can respond to touch,they will continue to hope. That is their absolute right.

Personally,I will never forget the support Tata Mandela and his wife Graca gave to my husband and his siblings during the final days of my father-in-law,Walter Sisulu. Mandela has never been a man who can easily express emotion but he was clearly distraught at the loss of his mentor,comrade and friend of over 50 years. Despite his own distress,he was able to provide the comfort and support that we so desperately needed. Last October,Tata,Aunt Graca,Makaziwe and all the Mandela family rallied around us once again when we mourned the untimely death of our beloved brother Zwelakhe. This is why,no matter how I try to prepare myself for the inevitable,I still find it impossible to contain my grief. I try to find consolation in the fact that I have been blessed by the enormous privilege of personal interaction with Nelson Mandela,of witnessing first hand his love for his children and grandchildren.

While the world prepares to mourn a global icon,a liberation hero,the foremost architect of South Africa’s democracy,the most famous leader of the African National Congress and first president of a democratic South Africa,there will be those who will spare a thought for Mandela,the family man. These are precious days for his wife,children and grandchildren. Impossible though it may be,I wish them the space and privacy to savour them.

Sisulu is a writer and human rights activist best known for her biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu

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