Mandela’s final moments spent with Winnie and Graça

Nelson Mandela's final moments were spent off a life support machine with his wife, Graça Machel, and his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at his bedside, witnesses have said.

The former president died at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, at 8.50pm on Thursday, sending millions into mourning in South Africa and around the world.

Bantu Holomisa, a politician and close family friend, recalled how less than three hours earlier he found Mandela asleep and struggling to breathe but "still fighting".

Holomisa (58) said he received a call on Thursday afternoon telling him to come urgently. "They said on the phone that Madiba [Mandela's clan name] doesn't look good," he told the Guardian. "I immediately drove straight to his home and went to his bedroom."

The time was 6.35pm and Mandela's condition was clearly at a new low. "I could confirm this wasn't the Madiba we've seen since he went into hospital. He was sleeping with no life support machine. You could hear from his breathing that he was struggling.

"Winnie and Graça were at the bedside of Madiba. You could see the tension. I bowed to acknowledge them then gave myself a moment of silence with Madiba. [I] said thank you to the doctors and then left at 6.50pm for another engagement."

Conditioned mind
At that point Holomisa did not realise he would never see his mentor again. "I was still in a state of denial. He's still fighting, but it was not to be. I was not that shocked when he died because I had just seen him. My mind was conditioned from the time I received the call."

The national outpouring of song and dance in honour of Mandela's life moved Holomisa, who remained close to him despite being expelled from the ANC and setting up the rival United Democratic Movement.

"It [Mandela's passing] reminds me of the day Mandela was released or, after his election, the day we inaugurated him as president. The mood is one of celebration and he would appreciate it as typical of him," said Holomisa.

Dali Tambo, son of Mandela's friend and ally Oliver Tambo, was woken by his son with the news at around midnight on Thursday. He then went to Mandela's home to find Machel, Madikizela-Mandela and other family members, relatives of the late Walter Sisulu, as well as President Jacob Zuma and several government ministers.

"There was a prayer and a hymn," he said. "The leadership consulted with the family about arrangements. The body was brought down and taken to a morgue. It was very sad, very sombre. It's always a hard experience for the family when the deceased leaves. I remember with my father, we had an argument about wanting him to stay longer. It's like a full stop."

Members of the public were gathering outside the high walls of the home in a tree-lined suburb, lighting candles and singing liberation-era songs. Tambo added: "You could hear the crowd. It was beautiful and spontaneous. They were [the] first who'd heard the news and had rushed there. They were emotional. My last words to a group of ANC people who asked me to toyi-toyi with them were, 'I'm going to bed'."

Casket
Sunday Times reported that Mandela's daughter Makaziwe and grandson Mandla were also at his deathbed. Grandson Mandla Mandela had been urgently summoned from Mvezo in Eastern Cape province early on Thursday morning. Nelson Mandela's daughters from his marriage to Madikizela-Mandela, Zindzi and Zenani, were both in London for the royal premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and left the screening for the first flight home.

The military arrived with a casket to collect Mandela's body at about midnight so it could be taken to a military hospital in the capital, Pretoria, where it will lie in state this week. As the casket left draped in the South African national flag, Mandla Mandela sang his grandfather's praises with the words, "Aah Dalibunga" and was joined by family members and political leaders, the paper reported.

According to the City Press, it was Tuesday night when Zuma learned of Mandela's deteriorating condition and that his death was imminent. "On Wednesday, word came from his house in Houghton that his already critical condition had worsened," the paper said. "He was fading fast. Mandela had not spoken a single word for months.

"On Thursday night, he was entering the final moments of his life. His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was there and preparing to stay overnight. Those in the house speak of an overwhelming sadness that engulfed it. Family members were allowed into his room in pairs or in threes and allowed private moments with him."

The paper cited different sources making different claims about the cause of death including fluid on the lungs, a serious infection that was antibiotic resistant, and blood pressure that dropped too low. On Sunday the presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj did not respond to requests for comment. – © Guardian News and Media 2013

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