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Mandela: South Africa at his bedside - united in hope

Staff Reporters

As South Africans watch and wait for news on Nelson Mandela's health, the country's response speaks volumes about the struggle icon's lasting legacy.

A file image of former president Nelson Mandela with his wife Graça Machel. (AFP)

South Africa is firmly at the bedside of its greatest leader, Nelson Mandela, who is gravely ill, but alive. Fighting. 

Some watch and wait, some pray, others plan ahead and play the scenario of his death over and over in their heads. With varying degrees of success, South Africans have found a way to stay upbeat; stay hopeful. They have found ways to deal with the enormity and the monotony of a story that is going nowhere but has brought the world to a standstill. Watching.

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On Wednesday, in starkly different corners of the country – from the stiff machinery of Parliament in Cape Town to the tourist hive at Vilakazi Street in Soweto – South Africans spoke up, enamoured with affection for Madiba. 

Parliament, Cape Town
Even as he faced the gauntlet of the National Assembly ahead of his presidency budget speech, President Jacob Zuma moved to reassure the public that Mandela was responding to treatment – a significant change to the banal progress reports up until that point.

"We are very happy with the progress that he is now making following a difficult last few days," said Zuma.

"We appreciate the messages of support from all over the world. It is an honour for us as South Africans to share Madiba with the international community. We fully understand and appreciate the global interest in this world icon. We are so proud to call him our own," said Zuma.

All political parties who participated in the budget debate paid tribute to Mandela and sent their well wishes.

A touching gesture was led by Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who asked all the men in the National Assembly to rise and pay tribute to Mandela.

He then saluted Mandela by citing his praise name, saying: "Ah! Dalibhunga", with the rest of the men repeating after him.

Minutes after completing the speech that honoured the struggle icon, Zuma was bombarded by opposition parties for a lack of leadership. Frustrated. The irony was not lost on Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

"I appeal directly to the governing party to spare our country any future damage by not allowing President Jacob Zuma to contest the 2014 general election ... South Africa cannot afford one more lost year. If we are consigned to another six years of failed leadership, South Africa may never recover the lost ground," she said.

Mazibuko said the past year has seen South Africa take a major step backwards in achieving Mandela's goals of freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear, with the government stumbling from crisis to crisis.

Pretoria Heart hospital
A world away, but closer to Mandela than most, Seth Kwabena sits in his shoe stall across the road from the Pretoria hospital where the former president is being treated. He sits behind a fence, watching the international media load and unload their camera equipment. He is nonplussed about the slow march of news reporters, toing-and-froing up and down his neighbourhood. 

But his patience with the press is wearing thin: the countless interviews he has done since Mandela's admission on Saturday are starting to eat into his work schedule.

"I've already told my story. Can't you do this interview, Maurice?" he says to his neighbour. Maurice is camera-shy.

Seth and Maurice were two of the first locals to taste fame in the hours after Mandela's admission to hospital, and the influx of press that followed. In the absence of any real news about Mandela's condition, their thoughts and impressions make for satisfactory camera inserts. 

A local news broadcaster goes live across the road.

"What we know is that President Jacob Zuma has been thoroughly briefed on Mandela's condition, and has sought to assure the nation that Mandela is receiving the best possible care … At this stage we can report that Mandela's condition appears unchanged. He is in a serious condition, but he is stable … "

On the street, Adelaide Molemo waits for a taxi. "I just wish him a speedy recovery. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here, getting into this taxi. He must just rest and get better, please," she says.

Qunu, Eastern Cape
Over the years the sleepy village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape has been thrust into the international spotlight. It is the place Mandela calls home.

On Thursday a deceptive quiet prevailed. The only sign of unusual activity in the town where Mandela was spending an increased amount of time is the swarm of journalists who have descended, interviewing obliging townsfolk about the town's most famous citizen.

Other than that, it is business as usual. The drilling from the construction work (on the N2 linking Mthatha to eDutywa) pierces the quiet winds sweeping the pastoral open plains. 

But locals will be quick to warn about misreading the calm as a sign of aloofness or lack of compassion. "For me the sad thing is that journalists are expecting outward signs of worry, like the ones they are used to seeing in Johannesburg," said a local who would rather not be named. "Were this Houghton, you would be having bouquets of flowers and get-well cards being delivered onto the streets outside his house. That's not to say people here are not grieving or worried about his health, he says. "It's just that here, it's not how we do things. We carry the hope of his recovery inside our hearts."

Dixon Mbamatye, a local resident in Qunu, tried to keep his spirits up although he was visibly weighed down by the lack of positive news on Madiba's health. "His pain is our pain because we want him to live longer. In fact, we would like him to be literally born again, like in that conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus."

Vilakazi Street, Soweto
Soweto, a special place to Mandela, holds the reins to his legacy among the people. It is the nucleus of the struggle against apartheid Mandela so valiantly personified.

Sitting across a busy Vilakazi Street digging into her fish and chips lunch, 85-year-old Mme Mabuza stares at Mandela's house and shakes her head in disdain. She sinks deep into her thoughts by the look in her eyes and pulls out a random memory from her past.

"I remember his late son, Makgatho. He had his father's presence, charisma, confidence and he walked tall. That's Nelson Mandela! The man we see today on television who cannot even speak for himself is not him," she shakes her head vehemently.

"We must let him go, he has done his job, and his body has endured cruelties not kind to a human being, he is succumbing to them," she says as the Nelson Mandela Family Restaurant waitron serves her juice.

Mme Mabuza grew up around Madiba, and like most women her age in this buzzing neighbourhood, calls him "Tata", despite the small age difference between the two of them. She speaks of the warmth he possessed during an era where black people had bigger problems than being affectionate towards one another.

In Vilakazi Street, the show goes on. Two immaculately dressed young men perform dancing tricks for tourists all day, making up to R300 each. Just behind them tourists also gather for an impromptu oral history about Mandela with glaring inaccuracies from locals.

Small scale photographers have planted themselves at the entrance of the house to catch the wave of locals who want instant pictures of themselves with the house as a backdrop at R15 per image.

One man jokes with another about the good week they have had and how they pray this boom continues, no matter what happens to Mandela. Optimistic.

Even in the twilight of his life Mandela appears to unite South Africans – a value not immediately appreciated amidst the news scramble, the rumours, the soundbites and hashtags floating about. The country will greet a new day grateful that Mandela is still around. They will go about their jobs like any other day. Hopeful. opposition parties will continue to hammer the president, and Seth Kwabena may do more interviews and repair less shoes. Watching.

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