In what more and more South Africans fear are Nelson Mandela’s final hours, many are wondering what life here will be like without him, writes Brett Mason.
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12 Jun 2013 - 7:16 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

By Brett Mason, SBS Europe Correspondent, in South Africa

Clutching hand-wrapped bouquets and hand-written tributes, South Africans - young and old, rich and poor, black and white – stand shoulder-to-shoulder, united by increasing despair and helplessness, as their nation's father faces his toughest fight yet.

In what more and more South Africans fear are Nelson Mandela's final hours, many are wondering what life here will be like without him.

As the frail 94-year-old is comforted by family inside Pretoria's Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital, lifelong friend Andrew Mlyngeni warned the world outside: “it's time to let him go”.

“Quite clearly he is not well and there is a possibility he might not be well again” he told reporters.

But Mandela is a fighter.

And his people know it.

He has conquered recurring tuberculosis, pneumonia, prostate cancer, cataract surgery and gallstones.

But this time it feels different.

This is 'Madiba's' fourth hospital stay since December and in just over a month South Africans have planned a party to celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday.

Born in 1918, he was rather prophetically named “Rolihlahla”, or “troublemaker”, but was renamed “Nelson” by his teacher on the first day of school.

“Why this name, I have no idea” he later quipped.

The name stuck regardless (so did Rolihlahla, now his middle name) but here in Africa, he is best known by his Xhosa clan name: “Madiba”.

He was jailed for 27 years for helping draft the African National Congress charter which declared: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.

Three months after the Berlin Wall came down, Madiba was finally released from his cramped, concrete cell.

Four years later more than a billion people watched live on television as he became president of a new South Africa.

He has since been bestowed with about 100 awards and accolades for each year he spent in prison.

Among his many honours - a Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In Mandela's authorised biogragraphy, Anthony Sampson reflected that when Madiba took the oath of office almost half of South Africa's 40 million people lived below the poverty line.

“23 million people lacked electricity or adequate sanitation, 12 million lacked clean water supplies, 2 million children were not in school, a third of the population was illiterate and unemployment was 33%”.

While there is still much work to be done, in just one term as President, Mandela dramatically reduced the gap between the rich and poor.

“Three million people were connected to telephone lines and safe drinking water, 1.5 million children were brought into the education system, 500 clinics were upgraded or built, two million people were connected to the electricity grid and 750,000 houses were built providing shelter for nearly three million people,” Sampson says.

But South Africans will tell you his real achievements cannot be measured by spreadsheets and graphs.

They can be witnessed on a daily basis.

Mandela used his nation's love of sport as a way to bridge what, only a few decades ago, appeared an irreconcilable racial divide.

When South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela slipped into a Springboks jersey to present the winner's trophy to the host nation.

This simple gesture successfully humanised and personalised a sporting code that many Africans had despised.

Within an instant “their” team became “our” team.

After years and years of lobbying, in 2010 Mandela's dream of South Africa hosting a FIFA World Cup was realised.

I was fortunate enough to spend more than a month in South Africa during the Cup and can honestly say I have never seen a country beam with such exuberance and pride.

However, the nation's excitement was overshadowed by the sudden death of Madiba's 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani.

She was killed in a car accident while being driven home from a concert in Soweto to mark the launch of the tournament.

Instead of attending the opening ceremony, Mandela attend Zenani's funeral.
And so did I.

Despite the overwhelming sadness of the occasion, I have never been in the company of someone who had such a profound effect on those around him.

The only person who comes close is Queen Elizabeth, but, dare I say it, even Her Majesty is left in Mandela's wake.

Our South African producer had never been in such close proximity to Mandela and found just being near Madiba so overwhelming she was reduced to tears.

It really was a surreal moment.

I will never forget the goosebumps that sprung up across my body when the frail former President flashed me his trademark smile.

Johannesburg shook with thunderous applause a fortnight later when the real star of the tournament appeared at the closing ceremony at Soccer City.

It was the same stadium at which he addressed 100,000 supporters shortly after his release from prison.

I remember closing my eyes, listening to the crowd and wondering what that moment must have been like.

Six years before the World Cup, an increasingly frail 85-year-old Mandela declared he was retiring from retirement.

“Don't call me, I'll call you” he joked with reporters.

But when the world calls, Madiba answers.

That is why his people have gathered to deliver one simple message: we are here for you.

They are praying for the best.

But bracing as a nation for the worst.

@BrettMasonNews