Mandela family calm as tense media wait for news

Nelson Mandela was allowed home after medics constructed a ‘mini hospital ward’ inside his bedroom. Credit: Szwarc Henri/ABACA/Press Association Images

“We have come to terms intellectually, but not emotionally”, says Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindzi when I ask about her preparedness for the time when the life of the man the world most reveres comes to an end.

But she does not appear consumed by his decline. She does not seem to be in fear of her father’s death.

I spent Tuesday morning with Zindzi and her mother, Winnie - Nelson Mandela’s former wife - at their home in Soweto. I sat with them for an hour drinking coffee in their grand sitting room, discussing the life and health of the ‘Father of the Nation’.

The Mandela women seemed calm. They made jokes and they laughed. Zindzi teased her mother about her age – her 77th birthday is later this month. In turn, Winnie frequently chastised her daughter for her “caustic sense of humour”.

Compare that experience with Tuesday afternoon, when I spent time with the reporters and cameramen who are camped outside Mandela’s mansion in the Johannesburg suburbs.

Strangely, they seem far tenser. Every time a vehicle arrived at the house, every time a visitor buzzed at the gates, the cameras flashed. The snappers are looking for something significant – a tell-tale sign amid the near-silence of government officials who provide short, occasional statements on the health of the former president.

Members of the media gather outside Nelson Mandela's house in Houghton, Johannesburg Credit: Reuters

On Sunday, it will be three months since Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, was admitted to hospital after a lung infection returned. It will be seven days since Mr Mandela was allowed home after medics constructed a ‘mini hospital ward’ inside his bedroom.

“His home has been turned into a hospital”, Winnie told me, outlining one of the reasons why they seem more relaxed than they did a few weeks ago. “There isn’t any machine that is not available there. If there is any emergency, they will be able to treat him at home and not rush him to hospital.”

And so it is on his home, rather than his former hospital that the cameras are now focused.

When a power cut plunged the house into darkness on Wednesday, photographers were dispatched, 'just in case'. But a back-up generator had kicked in to power the medical equipment. There was nothing of any consequence to photograph.

Of course, the concern of the media is because Nelson Mandela – one of the world’s great icons – is 95 years old and critically ill. And yet his family, at least publicly, seem laid back about the state of his health. But they are not deluded about how much time the grand old man might have left.

“We have not known him for very long” says Zindzi, referring to her father’s 27 years in prison. “This is our moment. Don’t spoil it for us.”