Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who covered the story, shares details and why they matter to South Africans.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is home again, no doubt surrounded by his loving wife and daughters and probably grandchildren and maybe a few close friends. South Africans are breathing a sigh of relief. This follows almost two days of collective worry over what the diagnosis for his stomach ailment was, how much trouble the 93-year-old former president of South Africa was in and the prognosis for his recovery.
The postapartheid, black-led government that Mandela was the first to helm back in 1994 clearly learned from past experience in handling his hospitalization this weekend. A disorganized approach to his hospitalization in January 2010 led to chaos, not only at the Johannesburg private hospital where he had been admitted -- as cameras and correspondents, both local and international, flooded the hospital grounds where Mandela was being treated inside -- but also in how the government handled the situation, which was poorly. And that handling fed thoughts of the unthinkable: that Mandela might be "transitioning," as they say here.
No, this time the government went in the opposite direction, taking complete control of Mandela's whereabouts and all information about his case, releasing very few details. So the gathering media hoards were left not only driving around Pretoria looking for where the esteemed patient might be but also calling on every resource searching for the reason Mandela was in hospital in the first place. The only information that was given out to the press was that he was in the hospital because of persistent abdominal pains and that the hospital visit was preplanned, though the latter fact his been difficult to substantiate, and it appears that at least some who are close to him knew nothing about it.
In the end, after two days, it was the minister of defense, Lindiwe Sisulu (whose father, by the way, served with Mandela on Robben Island), who gave the most information: Mandela had not undergone surgery but, rather, had a minimally invasive laparoscopy (a surgical procedure that uses a thin, lighted tube that is inserted through an incision in the abdominal wall to examine the intestines), and the findings had revealed nothing serious. On television, one local doctor shed a little light on the procedure, saying that if the president had undergone anything more invasive, it would have required general anesthesia, which would have been extremely risky for someone Mandela's age. And it not likely that he would have been released so soon.
When Mandela was released from the medical facility, it was not with the screaming sirens that attended his release from the hospital in January 2011. Instead, none of the journalists in and around the hospital where he was believed to have been treated even knew when he left; nor did the journalists milling around his Johannesburg home -- about 45 minutes from Pretoria -- know when one or two vehicles discreetly pulled into his driveway, one of them carrying Mandela. I received some of the first information that he was being released -- and that his secret getaway would be by helicopter -- but no other details.
Clearly, the lengths to which the government went in handling this situation had something to do with not wanting the embarrassment of the earlier debacle. But also, I think there was equally a concern about protecting Mandela's privacy. In the minds of so many of his countrymen, Madiba, his affectionate clan name, is seen as their father, but when it comes to the intimate details of his health, the public consensus clearly -- and, in my view, appropriately -- is that such knowledge should be given only to the children he actually fathered and the blood relations around him.
Even though Mandela has not been seen in public for a while now -- though he posed for pictures with first lady Michelle Obama and her family when they visited last year, and flashed his "Madiba Magic" smile for the cameras -- he doesn't need to be physically present for South Africans to continue to hold him high, as they would say. He remains in their minds not only the "Father of the Nation" but also its heart and soul. His values represent the promise of their country, not unlike Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream was to see a country where all God's children, black and white, rich and poor, would live in peace and harmony.
Also like MLK, Mandela left the active political stage before the dream was a reality, at least the part that called for equality for all. Clearly, it was Mandela's leadership and his insistent promotion of reconciliation that enabled a peaceful transition from white (and vicious) minority rule to the rule of the majority, avoiding a potential race war. But even as he took on many causes -- including HIV/AIDS, which claimed one of his sons -- and children's rights, Mandela left the active political stage as it was moving into the as-yet-unsettled territory of economic equality for the long-dispossessed black majority -- clearly where Dr. King was headed when he was assassinated.
Had Mandela actively led for a few more years, he may have gone there, too. But he had already given 27 years of his life to the prison wardens and then another five to governing, so no one begrudged him the right to step off the active political stage before equality for all was a reality. Out of a population of 49 million, 7.5 million South Africans are currently out of work.
And now, as the country struggles with its new challenges, and a few of the old ones that Mandela's reconciliation didn't touch (just look at some of the ugly online comments on websites about him, clearly from South African unreconstructed whites, posted even during these two anxious days), the challenge of fulfilling his vision is left to those who worried about the possibility of losing him -- and, perhaps, his dream.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based writer and journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.