Mandela the patriarch of the nation

Mandela’s family finds growing crowds outside the hospital intrusive, but his legacy speaks differently.

If it’s a cliché, it bears saying once again: Nelson Mandela is the father of South Africa. And that’s half the problem.

Over recent days, members of the gravely ill statesman’s immediate family have complained of the intrusive media interest in his health. They’ve pointed to the undignified forest of TV cameras and satellite trucks parked in a side street outside the hospital, and felt – as anyone in their position would – that it is an unwarranted intrusion into a family’s very private crisis.

But “Madiba” isn’t just the Mandela family’s patriarch. He is South Africa’s. Anyone who doubts that need only glance at the deeply personal and intimate messages from well-wishers posted on the hospital’s perimeter wall.

In a child’s coloured pencil and an unsteady hand, “Desire” writes “Tata, we wish you a speedy recovery from your illness… some other children (who) couldn’t smile before, can actually smile because of you…” The note is decorated with flowers and hearts.

Another lavishly illustrated message reads: “Get well soon, Tata. We love you Madiba. Our prayers go out to you. Thank you for all you have been to us… thank you for making everyone’s life easy.”

“Tata” is a term of endearment meaning “father” in Mandela’s native Xosa language, usually reserved for a much loved elder. And reading the wall, the overriding impression is of people wanting to be a part of a heartbreakingly difficult stage in the life of someone they all feel close to.

Under those circumstances, it is natural to be hungry for detail. Anyone who has been through the illness of a loved one will understand the urgent need to know every little development, however seemingly insignificant. To a lesser extent, that is true even further abroad, particularly for people who were a part of the international anti-apartheid movement who saw Mandela as a hero and an icon and through it all became emotionally attached to both the cause and the man.

Of course, that is no excuse for the excesses of some of the press corps in seeking out and reporting rumours, but it is hard to be immune to the pressure for more and more information. Those well-wishers filling the streets keep asking reporters what they know. Editors are anxious for new information, fully aware that readers and audiences want it.

The Mandela family might wish the news crews and crowds away, but over the course of his life, Nelson Mandela spoke to and lead all South Africans in a way that was deliberately and explicitly inclusive.

The disorganised, and at times aggressive, gaggle of cameras outside the hospital is not a pretty sight, but it has always been a part of the man who sacrificed much of his family life, on the understanding that his responsibility was to the nation and not just his relatives.

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