Nelson Mandela wanted to withdraw into the land of his fathers. As he got older, the man who changed the face of Africa like no other loved to gaze out on the tranquil hilly landscape of the province of Eastern Cape. But instead of gently passing away in his modest home in the village of Qunu, Mandela died after a long struggle in his house in Johannesburg, which was surrounded by the media.
Graça Machel, Mandela's wife, sadly announced already a year ago that his "sparkle" was fading. What followed was months of discomfort and wrangling with death brought on by old lung ailment. It was a period marked by a grueling back and forth, as he was sometimes allowed to go home and sometimes compelled to stay in the hospital. On Thursday evening, it was South African President Jacob Zuma who broke the news that Mandela had died, saying: "Our nation has lost its greatest son."
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was 95 years old. Over the years, all South Africans, no matter what their skin color, would come to lovingly refer to him as "Madiba." While alive, he had already attained the status of a saint adored the world over. Bill Clinton called him the "Mahatma Gandhi of Africa," and his office continued to be flooded with interview requests and invitations even in his final years. In 2012, the government of South Africa even had Mandela's friendly face printed on the obverse of rand banknotes bearing the "big five" game animals -- the lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard -- on the other side.
Five years ago, when Mandela celebrated his 90th birthday, some 46,664 enthusiastic fans attended a benefit concert in London to congratulate him. 466/64 was also the number of the most famous prisoner in the world, the man who emerged from 27 years behind bars without rancor, who succeeded in getting his opponents to agree to ending Apartheid at the negotiating table, who prevented the peaceful revolution of blacks and "coloureds" against the dictatorship of the whites from devolving into a bloodbath.
A Legacy in Danger
It is not just his political accomplishments that sparked "Mandelamania." It was also his charisma and a unique combination of placidness and persistence. Those who met him once speak of his disarming ability to engage with the person across from him, and of his unshakeable self-assuredness.
Even his colorful Batik shirts triggered a fashion trend, at least in Africa. He was embraced with such genuine and widespread adoration that he was repeatedly forced to stress that he was "an ordinary human being" rather than a messiah.
But the hero Madiba also has a tragic side: His party, the African National Congress (ANC), is well on its way to gambling away Mandela's political legacy. In August 2012, predominantly black police officers shot dead protesting black miners outside the Marikana mine in the northwestern part of the country. It was a signal that brought back memories of massacres under the apartheid regime, such as that of 1960 in Sharpeville, when 69 blacks died in a hail of bullets fired by white police officers.
The ANC has governed South Africa virtually unchallenged since 1994, and the reputation of the old militant organization has been severely damaged. For one, the ANC has failed to close the enormous gap between rich and poor. The party has also had its problems conforming to democratic principles and has a reputation for being highly corrupt. ANC officials dominate the state apparatus and many economic sectors. They also put family members, friends and close associates into lucrative positions. Indeed, the new image of the ANC is gradually overshadowing the aura of its historic victory over the racist apartheid regime.
Mandela's successor as president of the "rainbow nation," as the new South Africa likes to call itself, is Jacob Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist with at least four wives. He once publically stated that a hot shower after sex was an effective safeguard against contracting the HIV virus. When appearing before supporters, he has no qualms about shouting battle cries such as "Bring me my machine gun!" One of his closest advisers was deeply embroiled in a corruption scandal regarding an arms purchase. A related corruption case against Zuma himself was dropped shortly before his election victory in 2009.
At the same time, Zuma numbers among the old cadre of liberation fighters. Like Mandela, he spent time on Robben Island. As a young firebrand, Zuma reportedly only learned to read well from older prisoners on this prison island near Cape Town. Those were still the times when one could still not foresee that the iron regime of the whites in South Africa would ever crumble.