Even as residents of Qunu in the rural Eastern Cape offered up prayers for the health of former South African president Nelson Mandela on Sunday, many have come to realize that they may never again see their village’s “father” walking its dusty dirt roads, greeting and joking with fellow residents.
As news of Mr. Mandela’s third serious hospitalization in six months reached his home town of Qunu in the rural Eastern Cape, residents of the village held their breath.
In Sunday services throughout the village, church-goers ushered up prayers for the elderly global icon’s health after he was admitted to hospital in the early hours of Saturday in what the South African Presidency described as “a serious condition.”
Despite a subsequent news alert that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was in “serious but stable condition” and breathing on his own, the townsfolk remained concerned for the man they have come to regard as their father and overwhelmingly expressed the feeling that they are not ready to face his passing.
“I am not ready to say goodbye. We as a community are not ready. Maybe God will make a plan and we will still be able to see him here in the village again," says Qunu resident Boniwe Matikinca.
The Qunu Mthini Society women’s prayer group often prays for the former statesman when they meet at a local hall each Thursday, and they would do so again, says resident Nomaova Habe.
“We are worried, because there is so much Madiba [as Mandela is affectionately known among Qunu residents] has done for us as his community. He used to throw Christmas parties and give presents to the children, and he even gave local children new school uniforms at one stage,” says Ms. Habe.
The last time Mandela was back in his home village, where he grew up and where his family homestead is based, was in early December. Since then, he has been confined to life behind the high walls of his home in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton – a far cry from his understated homestead in Qunu where he would spend much of his time outside its gates conversing with the villagers, according to longtime Qunu residents.
Despite Qunu residents’ wish to see their beloved “father” once again, the reality is looking increasingly unlikely.
“His family don’t want him to stay here. They would rather he be up in Johannesburg where there are good hospitals. The thing is, he loved to be here at home,” says Gloria Habe, formerly Gloria Mandela and the granddaughter of Mandela’s half-brother, Solomon.
Mandela has become increasingly frail in recent years. He was last seen in public during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup, and even then he did not give a public speech. Recent television footage, featuring President Jacob Zuma smiling as he sat next to a frail-looking, unsmiling Mandela, sparked a public outcry and claims that the anti-apartheid icon was being used as political currency despite his poor health.
A military plan is in place for protocol following Mandela’s death, including specifics about his body lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria before being flown to the Eastern Cape and buried at his Qunu home.
The youth in Qunu have grown up proud of the fact that the global icon resides just a stone's throw away. Despite many dwelling in mud huts – some without access to electricity or running water – the topic of Mandela sees their faces light up as many recall meeting the former South African dissident-turned-president.
“I am so grateful to have been born in this famous village,” says student Lungile Xozwa. "He has done a great job in this village and the world."