It was day 19 of the Nelson Mandela death watch, and my char, Mrs Gladys Dhladhla, had brought her grandson to work with her. Mlungisi is a stout little chap, 14 years old and bent on becoming a professional rugby player. His granny was counting on me to broaden his mind so Mlungisi and I drove to Mandela’s home in the suburb of Houghton and spent an hour or so chatting to the international TV crews camped on the sidewalk outside. One technician told us he’d been there since 8 June, the day the old man was admitted to hospital with a lung infection that was expected to be fatal. Nearly three weeks later, he was still refusing to die.
And then, even as we stood there, several cell phones started ringing simultaneously and the story of the impending demise was blown out of the water by a fuss involving Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, who exhumed three of his grandfather’s children and had them reburied in Mvezo, the remote rural hamlet where Nelson was born in 1918, and where Mandla now rules as tribal chief.
Mandla has yet to explain himself, but he apparently hopes to become sole custodian of the official Mandela graveyard, theme park and pilgrimage site. Other Mandelas believe the graveyard should be located in nearby Qunu, in accordance with the old man’s wishes. Sixteen of them went to court last week, demanding that Mandla return the ‘stolen’ corpses to their original place of burial. Anonymous clan elders have since informed the press that Mandela’s spirit will not leave his body until this dispute is settled. That could take weeks, so it seems safe to assume that Mr Mandela will still be breathing as you read this.
How dare I make such a statement? Hm. Western journalists who’ve come to cover Mandela’s demise seem oblivious to the fact they’re in a place where their certainties are quaintly irrelevant. Most Africans are Christians, but most Africans also revere the spirits of their ancestors, who tend to have firm views on death. For instance, the western practice of donating organs for transplant is anathema here, on the grounds that the spirit might become outraged when it discovers that its heart or liver has stayed behind in the real world. Switching off granddad’s life support is fraught with similar complications. I think that’s why Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe has accused the foreign press of ‘racism’ in its coverage of Madiba’s long goodbye. It’s not just that these white people are pushy and arrogant and expect Africans to cater to their every whim. Mostly, it’s that they don’t understand.
This is not necessarily their fault. Official silence about Madiba’s condition has forced all of us to invent narratives to fit the few known facts. The most common holds that Mandela would have died on the day of his admission to hospital if doctors hadn’t put him on life support. These days, once patients are on life support you can keep them alive almost indefinitely.
Why do such a thing to poor old Nelson? Some thought the government was worried about making a fool of itself and didn’t want the great man to expire until preparations for his funeral were complete. Later, it was rumoured that President Zuma had cut a deal with the White House under the terms of which Mandela would be kept alive until Barack Obama arrived to say goodbye. At that point the old man would clasp the presidential hand, smile weakly and say, ‘My son, you must promise to carry on my work for me.’ I mean, c’mon. It’s a Hollywood ending! Any politician would kill to be in such a scene.
But all theorising ceased the instant we learned about the corpses unilaterally exhumed by young Mandla Mandela. Suddenly everything made sense. ‘This is a very serious matter,’ said Johnny Clegg, an anthropologist before he became the rock star popularly known as Le Zoulou Blanc. ‘Mandela can’t go because this thing hasn’t been handled correctly by his grandson. His passage to cross over has been blocked.’
Are you expected to take this seriously? I’m afraid so. It could simply mean that Mandela’s descendants have instructed doctors to keep the old man on life support for the moment. It could also be that they were guided to this decision by his immortal warrior spirit, which has resolved not to leave until harmony is restored in his family. Either way, the outcome is the same: Nelson Mandela will not die soon.
In fact, he might not die at all, if Daniel Sello, aka ‘Daniel from the Bible’, is to be believed. Daniel appeared outside Mandela’s hospital yesterday, carrying a spear and sporting a skirt of animal skins along with a spectacular witch doctor’s beaded hair-do. He laid a straw mat on the pavement, strew divining bones across it and spake thus: ‘Mandela is God! That is why he will never die! He will be with us until the world ends!’ Then he instructed the foreign press to return whence they came and spread the good tidings.
Which makes this an appropriate moment to observe a minute’s silence for all the news organisations that committed themselves to saturation coverage of Mandela’s death, only to find themselves squandering resources on a story that refuses to co-operate. The American TV network ABC, for instance, reportedly has around 50 staff on stand-by at various South African locations. Every time I change channels on satellite TV, I find yet another doleful Yank standing in some South African landscape, talking about the great statesman and how much we’re all going to miss him when he goes. If this carries on much longer, there’ll be hardly anything left to say when he actually dies.
There is a silver lining. After this macabre and agonising dress rehearsal, the real death will hardly hurt at all.
Rian Malan is the author of My Traitor’s Heart, and plays guitar for the gypsy jazz group Hot Club d’Afrique.