By early 2013 Nelson Mandela was slowly dying. His family and carers deliberately shielded him from the endless stories of African National Congress corruption and mismanagement because they knew it would upset him to see what his beloved party had become.
Mandela represented the ANC’s only remaining claim to the “moral high ground”, of which it had asserted sole ownership when it was unbanned in 1990. As such he remained a precious political possession, especially since his popularity domestically and internationally remained at stellar levels. Thus when he was rushed to hospital on June 8 it was a crisis not just for his family but also for the ruling party.
Much had already been made of Mandela’s approaching 95th birthday (on July 18) and the ANC was trying hard to have that date internationally recognised as Mandela Day.
Mandela’s hospital in Pretoria was immediately cordoned off with military efficiency. He had had lung infections before and rumours soon circulated that he was hooked up to a catheter, ventilator and dialysis machine. Indeed, one of his visiting grandchildren rather sadly said that her grandfather was being kept in a “vegetable” state. This immediately brought thunderous denials from the presidency, and when the press asked other grandchildren, it received a unanimous “no comment” response: clearly, a three-line whip was in force.
The oddity was that normally it is family members who decide whether and when to switch off life support. But the sprawling Mandela family was always at war with itself. His eldest daughter, Makaziwe, who acted as the family spokeswoman, greatly disliked Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel (whom she called “Mrs Frantic"), and sidelined her to the point where it was difficult for Machel to visit her husband. Mandela’s personal assistant was similarly banned and had to be smuggled in. But above all it was clear that the presidency and the ANC had taken charge.
Suspicions grew that on party instructions Mandela was being kept alive artificially in order to get to the magic date of July 18.
Journalists kept pressing to be allowed to speak to any of the doctors treating Mandela — normally there would have been hospital bulletins or news briefings by medical staff — but there was none. Mac Maharaj, the presidential spokesman, explained that “an arrangement has been made [with the doctors] that all information should come from a single source in an authoritative way” — that is, himself.
Meanwhile, on July 4 court documents were released saying that Mandela “is in a permanent vegetative state and is assisted in breathing by a life-support machine. The Mandela family has been advised by medical practitioners that his life-support machine should be switched off.”
It was now clear that the doctors, under who knows what pressures, had been silenced by the ANC and the presidential bulletins that Mandela was in a “critical but stable condition” were essentially lies. The dating of the documents suggests that this medical recommendation must have gone back at least to late June — a notion perhaps supported by the fact that President Jacob Zuma had visited Mandela on June 26 and had been so shocked that he immediately called off his planned visit to Mozambique on June 27.
The presidency was clearly furious that news of Mandela’s condition had leaked out and immediately issued a statement that “the doctors deny that the former president is in a vegetative state”. Even the Mandela family were persuaded to issue denials that their court papers had said what they indubitably had.
Makaziwe said Mandela “hasn’t said we should release him .?.?. It is only God who knows the end.” This was disingenuous: since he was on a ventilator Mandela could not speak, and the most that any visitor had claimed was that they had seen his eyes move.
Mandela’s authorised biographer, Charlene Smith, was blunter: “He’s basically gone. He’s not there. He’s not there.” Maharaj denounced such reports as contrary to “doctor-patient confidentiality”.
After one specialist not involved with the case said that when someone as old as Mandela had been on a ventilator that long, it was all but impossible to take him off it, Maharaj denounced the newspaper carrying the story for “transgressing professional ethics”. The presidency continued to issue its own soothing but dishonest bulletins. Mandela Day was duly celebrated and children were encouraged to send thousands of “get well” and “happy birthday” messages to the unconscious old man.
On September 1 he was moved to his Johannesburg home, which had been fitted out as a medical facility with specially chosen (and silent) doctors. Here security was even tighter and there were no hospital staff or nurses for journalists to talk to. With Mandela Day over, Mandela was, so to speak, now free to die. But since his death would be of such huge and sacral importance to the ANC, everything now had to be planned meticulously.
The ANC tends to think in heavily symbolic terms — placing huge emphasis on funerals, anniversaries, bringing back home the mortal remains of long-dead exiles and the like. The funeral, the memorial service and the period of mourning for Mandela would be of exceptional importance and the ANC was determined to wring from it all it could. But it had a crowded calendar of events, dominated by the elections in May 2014, the campaign before that, the anniversary of its founding on January 8 and so on.
The question was: when was Mandela going to die? The longer he was left on life support, the greater the risk that the old man might decide this by himself. This could turn out to be very inconvenient, so it was better to take the matter in hand. The party would decide when he would die.
As one looked at the calendar, the solution was obvious. Mandela couldn’t be allowed to die too near Christmas or over the long Christmas-new year break, the peak of the summer holidays in South Africa. The ideal time for the funeral would be close to December 16. This was once the day when the whites celebrated victory over Dingane’s Zulus, and for that reason the date had been chosen to launch guerilla action by the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in 1961. Now it was the Day of Reconciliation.
Holding the funeral on the eve of December 16 would emphasise Mandela the guerilla leader and revolutionary. That would be sufficiently before Christmas and allow time to organise the large international event that the funeral was bound to be. This in turn dictated that Mandela had to die about 10 days before that. And he duly did, on December 5.
One or two family members rather gave the game away by bravely trumpeting that Mandela “took his last few breaths on his own”, thus revealing that he had died only seconds after the ventilator had been turned off. Winnie Mandela spoke of her “shock” when she entered his room to find that “they’d switched off the dialysis machine. I watched those figures going down, down so slowly.”
The memorial service and funeral were not what everyone had expected. The Prince of Wales and four British prime ministers (Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron) attended, as did four US presidents (Carter, Clinton, George W Bush and Obama). They had to sit through long, tedious speeches denouncing British and American imperialism.
There was a sensation at the memorial service when the crowd in the vast Soweto stadium booed Jacob Zuma, the president. The service was a trial for Desmond Tutu. Although a tiny man, Tutu has an ego roughly the size of Table Mountain. He had presided over the funerals of various “struggle” heroes and had assumed that, decked out in his old archbishop’s purple, he would do the same for Mandela.
Tutu had recently criticised the ANC in strong terms, however, and when the order of service appeared, his name was nowhere to be found — for, of course, the whole event was under strict party control. Tutu lobbied furiously to speak and was finally told that he could do so when others had finished. Since there were already 17 speakers at the service, this meant Tutu got to speak to a largely empty stadium, with the VIPs gone and the crowds streaming away.
The ANC jealously guarded the list of guests: all had to receive its “accreditation”. To her distress, this applied even to Machel, Mandela’s widow, who had wished to bring large numbers of her Mozambican family but was told that she had only four extra accredited places in her gift.
At the funeral itself a few days later, it was again made plain that the speeches would be primarily political and Tutu would not be asked to speak. Tutu, utterly piqued by the fact that the funeral would not afford him the star speaking spot he had hankered for, announced that he had cancelled his flight and would not attend. At the last moment he realised how bad this would look and, swallowing his pride, attended as a simple mourner.
In the end Mandela was laid to rest among the simple country people of his youth. His life had been so extraordinary, his personality so winning, that the strange nature of his death and its attendant ceremonies made little public impact. Mandela had always said that when he died, his first act, if he went to heaven, would be to inquire how he could join the nearest ANC branch there. His devotion to his party was simple and total. How odd that in the end it was the party that decided when and how he would die, elbowing aside doctors, clergy, family and funeral guests.
How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis, by RW Johnson, will be published by Hurst on August 20
The Sunday Times
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