South Africans Worry Over 'Tata' Mandela

A recent hospital stay has residents anxious about his health and its impact on the country's future.

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A man reads a newspaper bearing a photo of
former South African President Nelson Mandela. (Alexander Joe/AFP)

(The Root) -- South Africa's former President Nelson Mandela's weekend hospitalization sent shock waves throughout the world. The country's national and international figures alike wished the 94-year-old a speedy recovery with a fervent optimism that one might reserve for a much younger, healthier man.

The anti-apartheid icon was admitted to a military hospital Saturday in Pretoria -- where he remained overnight -- for what officials described as "routine tests." When President Jacob Zuma visited him Sunday morning, he said he found Mandela to be "comfortable, and in good care." 

And on Monday, reports said that Mandela went through more medical tests. The government has made efforts to assure the media, and in turn the world, that the Nobel Peace laureate is doing well, and there is "no cause for alarm."

Despite those statements, much of the public's reaction has been swift and universal: They've remained anxious. For many South Africans, talking about Mandela's mortality in public is considered taboo. When residents do broach the subject -- and they do so reluctantly -- they speak of the inevitability in the conditional tense: "if Mandela dies."

At first I thought this was a bit silly -- and the officious editor in me tried to correct them -- until I realized: How many of us have the courage to switch that "if" to "when" when speaking of our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our children and the other people we love most?

By using "if," it becomes clear how people regard him here -- as a beloved elder. Accordingly, many South Africans simply call him "Tata," which is Xhosa for "father." And so, congregants crowded Johannesburg's famous Regina Mundi church on Sunday morning to pray for his health. That church, in Johannesburg's Soweto township, was once a hotbed of anti-apartheid activity.

Well-wishers sent tidings from near and far. Chelsea Clinton tweeted Saturday night that she was "thinking of Madiba and the entire Mandela family." Like many South Africans, she called Mandela by his clan name. The charitable foundation of Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow anti-apartheid fighter who served alongside Mandela at the infamous Robben Island prison, sent their best wishes.

Very few people have known what exactly ails Mandela, and they haven't been forthcoming with specific details. Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj refused to divulge information about Mandela's condition, his prognosis or how he got to the hospital. A local paper quoted an unnamed family member who said Mandela had stopped speaking on Sunday. That report has not been confirmed.

Maharaj acidly noted that if officials reported every detail of Mandela's condition and travel arrangements, chaos might ensue. That's one reason, he said, that the military has taken over Mandela's medical care -- to keep people (and the media) from rushing the scene. "Thousands of people adore him," he said, "and if they heard he was on a particular road or a particular place, they would rush there, even though they know he can't see them."

There's truth to that. During Mandela's last public appearance, at the 2010 World Cup, the entire stadium of 85,000 people rose to their feet to welcome the little, old white-haired man who rode around the soccer pitch on a golf cart. He almost upstaged the main event -- which was, incidentally, the final match of the tournament.

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