THEY call him Tata – the Xhosa word for “father”. And last night, as family members gathered at Nelson Mandela’s bedside after he was rushed to hospital with a lung infection, South Africans across the world prayed for their beloved father figure.
The 94-year-old, who became the country’s first black leader in 1994, has been battling the infection for several days and was taken to hospital in Pretoria at 1.30am yesterday when his health deteriorated. Last night he was in a “serious but stable” condition, a phrase which was causing concern among South Africa’s 53 million people, for whom Mandela remains a potent symbol of the struggle against decades of white-minority rule.
A spokesperson for the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, said that the nation was “prepared for the worst”. Jackson Mthembu urged people across the world to keep “our beloved statesman” in their prayers.
“The situation is serious this time but doctors have assured us he is comfortable,” the party said in a statement.
“We will keep President Mandela and his family in our thoughts and prayers at this time and call upon South Africans and the peoples of the globe to do the same for our beloved statesman and icon.”
It is the first time “serious” has been used to described Mandela’s condition.
He has been hospitalised three times since December, and was last seen in public in April, when he was photographed sitting in a chair looking frail. At that time the ANC was at pains to assure the public that Mandela was “in good shape”.
Now, the language is more measured. Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj said: “What I am told by doctors is that he is breathing on his own and I think that is a positive sign,” he said.
Mandela’s wife, the 67-year- old Mozambican politician Graca Machel whom he married on his 80th birthday, has been at his bedside since he was admitted to hospital. She cancelled a scheduled appearance at a hunger summit in London when she learned about his condition.
“Naturally the immediate members of the family have access to him and it’s always good for the patient that he has been accompanied by one or other of them, and that has happened,” Maharaj said.
On the streets of Pretoria yesterday, people expressed their affection for their former president, as well as their
Mamoshomo Tswai, a trader, said: “As long as Tata is still alive then poor people like me, people who are down down, single mothers like me, we still have hope. South Africa is nothing without him.”
Another said: “We love him, we all do, but we must start to accept that he is a very old man.”
Keith Khoza, a spokesman for the ANC, said Mandela continued to be “a symbol of hope, to be a symbol of reconciliation” for South Africa.
“We are certainly concerned about his health and we call on South Africans to pray for him and his family.
“Even if you have an elderly person in the family who is sick and you expect something – once it happens the shock is still there.”
Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: “My thoughts are with Nelson Mandela.”
Mandela served as South Africa’s president from 1994 to 1999. The freedom fighter spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government, before being released in 1990. While there, he suffered damaged lungs while working in the prison quarry – a condition that has plagued him ever since.
“It gets treated and he gets better,” Maharaj said. “He’s prone to lung infection. There’s a long history behind that. He’s suffered from lung infection at different times. The first time we came across it was years ago when he was in prison.”
Mandela retired from public life in 2004 and is now only rarely seen in public. His last official appearance in public was at the final of the football World Cup in Johannesburg in 2010. In April of this year a row broke out when the ANC filmed a visit to see him and broadcast the pictures of him with President Zuma and other party figures. Critics called it an invasion of his privacy.
Since his withdrawal from public life, he has divided his time between his Johannesburg home and Qunu, the village in the impoverished Eastern Cape province where he was born and spent his early years.
Mandela spent nearly three weeks in hospital in December last year with a lung infection and after surgery to remove gallstones. It was his longest stay in hospital since his release from prison.
He remains widely revered across the world, but at home, and in the rest of Africa, Mandela is not without detractors, some of whom feel he made too many concessions to whites, who make up just ten per cent of the population, in the post-apartheid settlement.
Despite more than ten years of positive policies aimed at redressing the balance, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. On average a white household earns six times more than a black one.
“Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of [blacks],” Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe remarked in a documentary aired on South African television this month.
“That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”
But in Johannesburg yesterday, there was nothing but faith – and indeed love – for Tata.
“He is going to survive,’ said Willie Mokoena, a gardener in Mandela’s home city. “He’s a strong man.”
Another city resident, Martha Mawela, said she thought the former president would recover because: “Everybody loves Mandela.”