JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized just a week before South Africa’s ruling party gathers to choose a leader who will be heir apparent to the presidency. As the political storm clouds gather, some citizens say they are losing faith in the party that inextricably is tied to the beloved former president.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress turned 100-years old this year, and welcomed the event with a raucous celebration involving party stalwarts and foreign heads of state.
But one man was conspicuously absent from the festivities: Nelson Mandela. Now 94, Mandela became the party’s first South African president as a result of the nation’s first multiracial elections in 1994.
Mandela has pent two nights in a military hospital in Pretoria for an undisclosed ailment. Government officials said Saturday he was admitted for routine tests, and President Jacob Zuma said Sunday he visited Mandela and found him to be “comfortable.”
Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj said Mandela is doing well. He reiterated statements that Mandela’s hospitalization is not a cause for alarm.
“Former President Nelson Mandela has had a good night’s rest, the doctors will still conduct further tests today, he is in good hands," said Maharaj. "We have indicated from the beginning that these are tests being conducted in line with concerns over a person of his age. He is 94 years old. And tests and attention, at that age, every little issue has got to be addressed as a serious issue.”
Maharaj would not say how long Mandela might remain in the hospital.
Mandela was one of the party’s key leaders when it was banned during the apartheid era, and he paid a hefty price for it, spending 27 years in prison for his role in fighting white minority rule.
He played a key role in legitimizing the ANC and its cause through a series of private talks with the government during his final years in prison. He emerged victorious in 1991 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - 19 years ago - for engineering an end to apartheid. Mandela signed the nation’s new constitution on December 10, 1996.
But Mandela has not been the head of the ANC since 1997. He retired from public life in 2004, and his charitable foundation has tightened its ranks around him. He no longer gives interviews and his public appearances are increasingly rare.
Yet even though he is no longer at the forefront of the movement, he still is the conscience of this nation, said analyst Paul Graham, and his hospitalization has an effect on politics.
“I think that there is no doubt that between 1994 and at least until 2000, we had an extremely hardworking government comprised of the best of minds, with a very strong commitment to the transformation of South Africa. And during that time, his behavior and his stature brought people together in a way which has not happened since,” said Graham.
Graham, who is the executive director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said Mandela still is seen as a powerful force who might have been capable of mediating the party’s current leadership struggle.
Amelia Mosiuoa said she fondly remembers Mandela’s tenure. But since then, the 42-year-old chef says things have gotten worse and she does not hold the current leadership in the same regard.
“It is not that bad. But he has got too much scandal, we can not take those scandals. We need somebody who is honest, who is going to give us what we want,” she said.
Mosiuoa did not say which of the ANC members vying for party leadership would fill that role. As Mandela fades into the background of politics, the ANC will select its torchbearer next week.