(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.
Many South Africans feel they haven't had enough time with him. After all, Mandela spent 27 years in prison, denied access to the world and with few visits even from his family. During that time, the government forbade newspapers to run his photograph or his words. The ban was so comprehensive that when the prison system finally released its grip on him in the late 1980s and allowed wardens to take him for short field trips in Cape Town, Mandela said no one recognized the gaunt old man he had become.
Mandela's eventual death also kicks up an undercurrent of fear — among blacks and whites alike. In Johannesburg's once whites-only neighborhood of Hillbrow, I sat in Sharon Zinhle's car as she shook her head and said she feared the inevitable. "If we lose him, hey, we don't know what's going to happen to this country, really," Zinhle, a 33-year-old businesswoman and homemaker, told The Root.
She laughed nervously as she spoke and then paused for a beat. I wondered if she was referring to racial tensions. We'd already laughed about how I, a total stranger, had insinuated my way into her car — all the better to record her voice, I said — in what is considered the most dangerous part of town. We joked about her being carjacked by a pale-skinned female reporter in a neighborhood so dangerous uniformed police have been shot in broad daylight.
She swiftly shifted gears to her major fear: corruption. "During the times of Madiba, there was no corruption," she said. Nowadays, she said, "the corruption is too much."
Another concern outlined by the conservative white community is more stark: a white genocide. Some groups say that such a genocide is going on now, with the killings of thousands of white farmers since 1994. Some of those killings, like that of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche in 2010, may indeed have had racial undertones, but it's worth noting that the vast majority of people killed in South Africa are not white.
But the fear is real, and it's on both sides of the color aisle. South Africans fear that without Mandela, they'll be unmoored, bereft of the moral voice that led them for so long and held this nation together.
Mandela himself has tried to address this. He retired from public life in 2004, and at the time he said, "It's in your hands" to the next generation. His foundation has appealed to the world to make his retirement peaceful, and reminded the world that Mandela himself said, "I don't want to reach 100 years whilst I am still trying to bring about a solution in some complicated international issue."
He and his team have taken pains to avoid the growth of a cult of personality around him. They generally haven't succeeded. Last month the government put his face on its bank notes. But in my Sunday exploration through Hillbrow, among the throngs of young South Africans who described Mandela as their own father and lamented his health woes, I found at least one fledgling who seemed ready to fly the nest.
His name is Tommy, and he's in his mid-20s, one of South Africa's "born-frees" — so called because they didn't suffer under apartheid. "His time is over," Tommy said confidently. "It's time for us to lead this country."
Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and previously covered Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter.