Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nelson Mandela Is Not Quite Dead

"Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated."

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized for about three weeks now. His ailment is a familiar one for him — respiratory issues that date to his decades in a South Africa prison.

In the last seven days, there have been heightened concerns about his condition, which was downgraded from serious to critical.

When a 94–year–old man is in the hospital, even if it is for something relatively minor, there is always a certain element of concern. Advanced age can cause complications, and it is over before you know it.

Last weekend, word came that Nelson Mandela was in critical condition. That isn't good news for anyone of Mandela's age, but the consensus seemed to be that, well, he always comes through. He always bounces back. I got the clear sense that the people of South Africa fully expected him to rally the way he always has.

But around midweek, as Robyn Curnow reported for CNN, "fear and resignation" gripped many South Africans "that ... Mandela [would] not be with them much longer." He was on life support. Family members said he was at peace.

A day or two later, though, the hospital announced that Mandela's condition, while still critical, was stable. And that is where things stand today.

I still remember the day in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison. It was a Sunday in February.

At the time, I was in graduate school (classes usually met at night and never on weekends) and working at an afternoon newspaper (which usually meant working in the mornings — except on Saturdays, when we were putting together the Sunday morning editions — and I never worked on Sundays in those days).

I remember switching on my TV and watching what must have been (considering the time difference) tape of Mandela's actual release earlier that day and his slow walk from the prison, holding hands with his wife and being followed by a large entourage.

I had heard of Mandela all my life, but he had been in prison, and all I had seen were pictures of a man in his late 30s or early 40s, not the 71–year–old man I saw on my TV screen that day.

On the day of his release, it was easy to see the deep reverence the people of South Africa had for him. It was reminiscent of other 20th–century leaders.

It is difficult, for instance, not to compare Mandela with Mohandas Gandhi, who was known to his followers as Mahatma ("great soul") or Bapu ("father"). At some point, South Africans began calling Mandela Madiba, which is his clan name — and, consequently, not the same thing as a moniker.

They also call him "tata," which means "father."

To Western ears, the words sound similar, and there are more significant similarities to be seen in both men's roles in their countries' evolutions — not the least of which is the fact that Gandhi's initial efforts as a human rights activist were in South Africa before Mandela's birth.

Anyway, I must admit that, on the day of his release, I thought Mandela had spent his most productive years in prison, that he would never be able to make a significant contribution at his age.

But I should have known, from the then–recent example of Ronald Reagan, that age does not have to be a limitation to service, and it certainly wasn't for Nelson Mandela. If Mandela lives for another 2½ weeks, he will be 95 years old.

In 1993, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South African President Frederik de Klerk for their work for a peaceful transition from apartheid. A year later, he became South Africa's first black president. He decided not to seek a second term, but that wasn't the end for Mandela. He remained politically active even as his health declined in recent years.

Whenever Mandela does die, it would be appropriate to say of him what Albert Einstein said following the assassination of Gandhi 65 years ago:
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

But I will know — and so will you — because we saw him.

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