It has become an ominously frequent ritual. Officials announce that former South African president Nelson Mandela, 94, is in hospital; their statements are hungrily dissected for subtexts and hints between the lines; the president’s spokesman is bombarded with calls and fails to give satisfaction; TV crews gather outside a hospital on a best guess of where Mandela is being treated; editors polish obituaries and supplements; Twitter fills with prayers and unfounded rumors; and millions of South Africans are on edge, pondering — what happens after Mandela?
South Africa’s first black president, who is the closest thing the republic has to a king, tested the nation’s nerves again last week when he went into hospital with a recurring lung infection. Not for the first time, there was a general rush to expect the worst, confounded by the old trooper’s signature resilience. By Friday last week, Mandela was said to be in good spirits and “making steady progress.”
As journalist Phillip de Wet tweeted: “Worth repeating: odds don’t favour old people hospitalised with breathing trouble. But so far Nelson Mandela has beat those every time.”
Death has to get lucky only once, though. When it does, expect mourning on an unprecedented scale, including a funeral likely to be attended by the Prince of Wales, Oprah Winfrey and every living current and former US president.
The occasion and the grief will draw many South Africans together, irrespective of race, class or allegiance, but what then for the country and its dominant political force, the African National Congress (ANC)?
One small, but stubborn body of opinion refuses to go away — that Mandela’s death will herald the unraveling of South Africa. Some believe the anti-apartheid hero and paragon of racial reconciliation is the glue that holds the diverse nation together.
David Blair of the London-based Daily Telegraph blogged recently: “For as long as he lives, South Africans breathe a little easier and believe in their country a little more. When the day after Mandela dawns, that belief will be shaken, not dramatically or immediately, but slowly and perhaps imperceptibly. South Africa will, quite simply, be a different country.”
With less nuance, a persistent myth holds that black people have been waiting for his passing before unleashing a “night of the long knives,” a “genocide of whites” to “cleanse” South Africa.
This has reputedly spurred a tiny number of whites to stockpile food in bunkers or prepare to flee the country. They point to murders of white farmers and a perceived threat of Zimbabwe-style chaos.
AfriForum, a racial minority rights group, claimed it was aware of leaflets warning of a “killing spree” and messages on social media such as: “You guys must just wait until the day Mandela dies and then we’ll come for you.”
The group’s deputy chief executive Ernst Roets said: “We get a lot of fear.”
“We do get calls from people saying they’re scared about the day Mandela dies and what they should do,” Roets said. “There are fringe organizations that say: ‘Flee the country.’ We are encouraging people to be aware and look after their own safety. This is a dangerous country and crime is a problem, but if we want to make a prediction, there’s not going to be an all-out race war. There might be isolated incidents, but I think most people, white or black, want to live in peaceful coexistence.”