Why Nelson Mandela still matters to South Africa

Nelson Mandela still matters. We were reminded of that over the weekend as news spread through South Africa that the father of the nation had been admitted to hospital.

The exploratory procedure that he underwent was quite simple. An insignificant incision was made on his stomach to insert a small tube to investigate a nagging stomach problem. And yet, despite reassuring words from politicians and countless spokesmen, it led to a weekend of national anxiety – a mood captured and, perhaps, fuelled by some journalists.

Thousands of South Africans mark the anniversary of former South African president Nelson Mandela's release Credit: FOR/KV

The Government criticised those reporters, blaming the international media for “hyping people up”. One official told me that foreign news organisations were to blame for over-stating the seriousness of Mandela’s pre-planned hospital appointment. He said that the hospital visit was “something about nothing”. Of course, he’s right. But there is no such thing when it comes to the health of Nelson Mandela.

The Government fears the moment when the man known as ‘Madiba’ passes away. They suspect that the country will come to a stop amid uncontrollable public mourning. After all, he is the man who helped to give most of its people freedom and dignity. His sacrifices enabled the majority black population to live for more than the basic comforts of the white man. He is now frail and, aged 93, he deserves a peaceful retirement away from prying cameras and constant speculation about his well-being.

Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison in this February 11, 1990 Credit: KM/

But the politicians might harbour another fear about that dreadful moment. Nelson Mandela reminds many people of the country’s glory years, the electricity and euphoria of the birth of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. The moment in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison is when national nostalgia seems to begin. He embodies the miracle of South Africa’s early progress. Without him its people may be forced to focus on how far it still has to go: the scourge of public corruption, insecurity and inequality; laws which seem to challenge the spirit of Mandela, such as a bill which threatens to jail journalists and whistle-blowers.

The common excuse given for Government failure here is that this nation remains a work in progress, eighteen years after its first democratic elections. When Mandela is gone, that excuse will become less acceptable. A page will have been turned in South African history. We will suddenly be living in South Africa's future. The politicians know that it is not just Mandela, but the Mandela dream that the people of this country want to live forever.