On Nelson Mandela’s Hospitalization and the State of South African Society

Each time Madiba goes to the hospital, it prepares us for the inevitable, a South African friend told me last week while we were sitting in his living room.

It appears for the moment that the inevitable will not happen imminently, according to governmental reports this morning from South Africa that say the anti-apartheid icon is resting peacefully after surgery to remove gallstones.

But serious questions remain about the Zuma government that only throw into more stark relief the contrast between the lofty ideals for which Mandela and so many others struggled and the current state of South African society.

In one of his most famous speeches, Mandela ended his final statement before the court in his 1964 Rivonia trial with the following words:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Fortunately, he was not sentenced to death, but rather to life in prison.

As much of the world knows, Mandela then served 27 years in captivity, much of it on Robben Island, before being released in February 1990 after years of negotiations chronicled ably by Allister Sparks in his book Tomorrow Is Another Country.

In his first speech after being released, Mandela concluded his remarks by repeating his unwavering commitment to the same ideals.

But the conduct of the Zuma government in regards to Mandela’s hospitalization, among many issues, illustrates the degree to which things have fallen since those heady days when so much seemed possible.

Despite months of discussions about how to handle precisely this moment, the South African government apparently mislead the media about the most basic of details of Mandela’s hospitalization like the location of where he was being treated. And, according to a statement by the South African National Editors’ Forum, the government has tried to blame the media for the confusion it created.

This comes in the context of a seemingly unending series of scandals for Zuma and his party.

These range from Zuma’s personal conduct-he has been the subject of a number of sex-related controversies-to the extravagant way he and many other leaders have lived. Despite assertions by Mandela in the only 1994 presidential debate with National Party leader F.W. de Klerk that “we are not going to live as fat cats,” many in the government appear to have done just that.

Check out the section starting at 1:19 and continuing to 1:47.

Zuma has spent about $250 million rand, or $29 million, the vast majority of it public, to upgrade his homestead in Nkandla. This is only the most extreme example of ANC leaders, many of whom were not particularly wealthy before entering government, enriching themselves by dipping into public funds.

The scandals also include the failure to provide the most basic of services to some of the most vulnerable members of South African society. The entire province of Limpopo in the country’s northwestern section did not receive textbooks for much of the 2012 school year. Perhaps more telling, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, who retains her position, said the issue was neither a crisis nor a scandal.

The emergence of these “tenderpreneurs,” or government leaders awarding themselves contracts and then not delivering on the items in the contract has the effect of spitting in the faces of the poor, some say.

But actions went far beyond spitting in Marikana in August.

Forty-four people were killed in clashes between striking miners and police officers. Many attributed the miners’ frustration to having continued to work for very low wages at the same time that leaders have enriched themselves and failed to deliver government’s most basic services.

The toll of the government-involved violence was the highest in South Africa since the infamous Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

In that incident, 69 black South Africans who were peacefully protesting the apartheid government’s requirement that they carry a pass at all times were murdered by police forces.

This event convinced a much younger Mandela that decades of non-violent efforts would not yield the social change he and so many others had sought.

He helped found Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the African National Congress’ armed wing, shortly thereafter.

His actions during the ensuing months and years earned him the nickname, “The Black Pimpernel,” and led to his being captured and put on trial at Rivonia, where he delivered his famous speech.

Mandela’s surgery takes places against the backdrop of the ANC’s gathering for its elective conference in Mangaung, a seat of local government in the Free State and the place where the party was founded a century ago.

Zuma is all but certain to win re-election to lead the party, and, from there, is likely to be chosen by South African voters in 2014 to serve another five years as the nation’s president.

It is unclear whether the beloved Mandela will be alive for that expression of the people’s voice and will.

But the irony of the details of his physical failing being concealed by the government that has appeared to betray so many of the values to which he devoted his life cannot be missed.

We will continue to watch Madiba’s health with concern and to follow the political scene with a critical eye.

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