Why South Africans' reverence for Nelson Mandela runs so deep

This week's flurry of news about former President Nelson Mandela's hospital visit illustrates South Africans' powerful feelings for the man they credit for holding the country together on its path toward democracy.

Denis Farrell/AP Photo
Students from a school adjacent to the hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela, fondly known as "Madiba", is said to be undergoing routine tests make their way past a giant get well card Thursday, Jan. 27.

South Africa’s government called for calm today as beloved former President Nelson Mandela spent a second day in the hospital. Spokesmen for Mr. Mandela’s foundation said the elderly liberation fighter had gone to hospital for a “routine checkup,” but South Africans have been following news of his health closely nonetheless, and crowds have gathered outside of the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg where Mandela is seeking treatment.

A steady stream of visitors came to the hospital. Meanwhile, South Africa's office of the president assured South Africans that Mandela was being well cared for and requested that people respect his privacy.

We urge the media to afford him the dignity and respect that he is entitled to as the country’s founding democratic President, as a national hero and also as a citizen of the Republic,” the presidency’s statement said. “The media should balance the quest for stories with acting within the bounds of human decency and ensuring the respect for human dignity. The doctors also need to be allowed to do their work without undue pressure.”

The great regard that South Africans hold for their nonagenarian former president is wrapped up in the extraordinary saga of Mandela’s role in fighting for full democratic rights, and later, for holding South Africa together during one of the most difficult transitions in its history. Released from prison by the apartheid government in 1990 to begin negotiations, Mandela was a tough negotiator with the white-supremacist National Party, which had jailed him in August 1962 and imprisoned him for the next 27 years. But when his party won elections in 1994, Mandela was a voice of reason, convincing the members of his African National Congress to work together with the white minority to build a new, prosperous, nonracial, and democratic South Africa.

Since Mandela’s admission to the hospital on Wednesday afternoon, the tone of media coverage, e-mails, and tweets has tended to be one of quiet concern, and well-wishing.

"What more do we want from him?” Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu asked reporters in the central South African city of Bloemfontein on Thursday. “We want him to remain forever."

Outside the Milpark Hospital, a large crowd of journalists and well-wishers watched the coming and going of top South African political leaders. Across the street, students at a local primary school posted letters to “tata,” or grandfather, wishing him speedy recovery.

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