Nelson Mandela is 93 years old. He spends most of his time at home in Qunu, his ancestral homeland in rural South Africa. The former president and anti-apartheid campaigner has made few public appearances in recent years.
But Mandela is rarely far from people’s minds.
Heidi Holland, a journalist based in Johannesburg, met Mandela frequently after his release from prison in 1990. Now she gets regular updates on his health.
“He’s not sick,” she says, “he’s just fading away, as old men do.”
“And he had a tough life, you know, all that breaking of rocks in the quarries at Robben Island.”
Holland has heard the question many times: what’s going to happen to South Africa when Mandela passes away?
“And I used to say quite glibly, ‘well he’s been out of active politics for such a long time, it’s not going to make any difference.’ But I’ve changed my mind about that.”
Today Heidi Holland looks at the ruling African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, and she sees it corrupted by greed, ambition and infighting: things, she says, Mandela would not have tolerated.
“And so I have this growing nostalgia even though he isn’t dead yet,” she continues. “You just wonder where the voices of integrity will come from.”
Nelson Mandela has been the subject of criticism over the years, not least for actions he took when his then-wife Winnie Mandela was in legal trouble.
But nothing has really threatened his stature as the father of modern South Africa, even though it’s been more than a decade since he left office.
Bigboy Muhlwa, a geography teacher in Johannesburg, says that Mandela’s “presence cannot really go away.”
For him and many others, Mandela remains the country’s moral center, even as he’s absent from public life. He’s still the guy you want to turn to when things are going bad.
“The idea of Mandela, it goes and comes back,” says Muhlwa, adding that it comes back when people are talking about the most important things in their lives.
Amina Cachalia hears the same question again and again: ‘What’s going to happen when Mandela’s no longer here?’
Cachalia is a veteran of the freedom struggle, and she’s been a close friend of Nelson Mandela for more than sixty years.
She says people ask the question “as if he’s keeping us together in a way. That’s how people feel.”
Cachalia is upset at the thought of losing her friend, but she says South Africans have to face reality: Mandela will die, and there’s still basic work to be done.
Equal political freedom hasn’t yet translated into equal economic opportunity. Many young people are unemployed and angry.
From afar, it could look like the achievement of Nelson Mandela has been squandered and degraded.
But that’s not how Graunt Kruger sees things.
“Are we seeing a degradation of the era of Mandela? Well, the era of Mandela has gone.”
Kruger works with black women entrepreneurs for one of South Africa’s major banks. He says all South Africans are ‘Mandela’s children’. But children grow up, and–as he points out–these ones have accomplished great things.
“The ANC, the South African government, South Africa as a country [all] grew leaps and bounds beyond Mandela and probably beyond what his wildest expectations even were.”
Kruger says South Africa’s institutions have matured since Mandela stepped down. He believes the country is now well-placed to meet its current set of challenges.
Indeed, Kruger wonders if the focus on Mandela is more for people outside the country, as if South Africans themselves can’t afford to stop and get nostalgic: there’s too much to do.
But there are some, like veteran activist Amina Cachalia, who are adamant that South Africa mustn’t forget the lessons of Mandela and his generation.
“I think our leadership has to buck up” she says pointedly.
“The examples have been set for them. The struggle’s been won in a way, and yet there’s a great struggle ahead for us.”
It may be impossible to live up the standards set by Nelson Mandela. But Cachalia says South Africans must try.
Alex Gallafent traveled to South Africa with assistance from the International Reporting Project.