Mandela family and friends rankled by media fascination with death watch

'All the preparations, all the talk of Madiba as if he is already dead. It is something offensive' -- young resident of Mandela's home town.

Markus Schreiber/AP
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela embraces a wellwisher after making a statement at the house of her former husband and former South African President Nelson Mandela in Soweto, Friday, June 28.

On a gentle slope overlooking Nelson Mandela’s country home, workmen were busy today building a new dirt road leading to the south-facing meadow chosen as the global icon’s final resting place

On the 10-acre fenced hillside beyond, contractors paced a freshly flattened area ringed with low acacia bushes and newly planted clusters of red-flowered aloes, the signature species of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. 

This work may be necessary for when South Africa’s revered first black president passes on. The cluster of villages is called Qunu and it is where Mr. Mandela – whose clan name is Madiba – grew up herding sheep and cattle, and it is where he requested burial. 

But there is something both distasteful and taboo in Qunu about preparing for the time after someone’s death, before they die. 

“We know for someone like Madiba, things have to be ready,” says Sikholiwe Nduna, a college-age kid in a green beanie hat who was watching goats graze the land his father owns overlooking Mandela’s home.

“But some people here, they are finding it very difficult. All the preparations, all the talk of Madiba as if he is already dead. It is something offensive, and at emotional times like this, it annoys people.”

The international media, and their daily calls to check unceasing rumors about Mandela’s demise, have borne the brunt of criticism for “burying him before he is dead,” in Mr. Nduna's words. At the same time, many residents of Qunu expressed immense pride and gratitude at reports of millions of people around the world praying for Mandela’s recovery. 

One online publication this week actually ran a story that the senior statesman and moral icon had died, which later proved to be greatly exaggerated, to evoke Mark Twain's phrase. 

Perhaps the most evocative expression of family irritation came from Mandela's eldest daughter, Makaziwe, in an interview yesterday with South Africa’s state broadcaster, SABC.

“It's like truly vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo, waiting there for the last carcasses,” she said. “That's the image that we have, as a family.”

Her nephew, Mandla, said in a statement that all people, not just the media, who were speculating on Mandela’s illness should “desist from spreading mischievous rumors.”

Winnie Mandela, the statesman’s ex-wife, weighed in today. “It becomes difficult to understand the seeming impatience and statements like 'It is time for the family to let go',” she told reporters in Soweto.

“These are insensitive statements that no one would like to be made about their grandfather. Please understand the sensitivities and feelings of the family," she said.

In Qunu, apart from the crew laying the new road and one lonely international television cameraman leaning on his tripod opposite Mandela’s house, life continued as normal today.

“Why shouldn’t it?” asks Themba Toni, standing huddled with friends against the chilly morning air. “It is very wrong to assume someone is going to die. Instead, everyone should be praying for his recovery.”

In the tradition of the Xhosa, the tribe whose myriad clans populate these lands, preparing for someone’s death offends the spirits, says Nokuzola Tetani, who works at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu.

“Even if your father or husband is very sick and in the hospital, you must wake in the morning and open the doors and windows to his house, and sweep the floor and keep it tidy,” she says.

“If you shut it up, the ancestors will see, and think you have shut up the person too. You need to show them that you expect the person to get better.”

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