JOHANNESBURG — South Africans continue praying for the health of former president Nelson Mandela, who remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital. On Tuesday, though, another former South African president went into the hospital for heart surgery. F.W. de Klerk shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for their joint effort to bring a peaceful end to the racist apartheid system and establish democracy.
South Africa has three living Nobel Peace laureates. On Tuesday, two were in the hospital.
The foundation of former president F.W. de Klerk, who served as South Africa’s last apartheid president, announced the 77-year-old would be fitted with a pacemaker Tuesday in Cape Town.
His successor, anti-apartheid icon Mandela, has been in a Pretoria hospital since June 8. The 94-year-old has been in critical condition for more than a week.
Good wishes abound
On Tuesday, the office of current President Jacob Zuma issued a statement wishing de Klerk a swift recovery.
“We wish the former president well during this difficult time," said presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj. "Let us keep him and his family in our thoughts and prayers, says President Zuma.”
On Tuesday, members of the ruling African National Congress [ANC] held a prayer meeting for Mandela outside their headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, in a building named after South Africa’s first-ever Nobel Peace laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli.
Hundreds of well-wishers sang songs and prayed for the anti-apartheid icon.
ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe reserved his highest praise for Mandela, who he said was South Africa’s greatest leader. He said de Klerk played an important role, though, citing the historic day that he legalized the ANC, which had been banned.
“I think the apartheid regime discovered as a regime that it cannot govern on their own. And therefore, whether it was de Klerk, or [former President] P.W. [Botha], or whoever, at that moment, the moment had come for South Africa to change because apartheid was falling apart. I wish he can also recover quickly. He’s a fellow South African, he’s played his role, 7th February, 1990 made a huge difference,” said Mantashe.
Prayer meeting attendee Evelyn Khumalo, 61, said Mandela changed her life in immeasurable - and tangible - ways. For example, she said, she now gets a government pension. She said both men were responsible for South Africa’s transformation.
“I’m getting a pension now. I eat their money! My children are going to school [for] free," said Khumalo. "There’s nothing to worry [about]. The problem is how to use the money that Mandela gives us. You know, de Klerk I love, because he give Madiba a chance to be a president, so that’s why we are. I feel sorry for him. He must be better. Because as of 1994, he decided to give Madiba, so the freedom is ours.”
Store worker Max Leteane, 47, said both men hold a special place in his heart.
“Mr. de Klerk, you are an icon. And I’m very sorry for you to be in hospital. It’s a sad thing for me. I’m wishing you well, come back,” he said.
In some ways, the two men could not be more different - one represented the old apartheid guard, the other a multiracial South Africa.
Yet in another way, the two icons could not exist without the other. De Klerk signed orders to release Mandela from his life term in prison. Mandela, in turn, negotiated patiently with de Klerk’s National Party to bring apartheid to an end.
In 1993, when a right-wing assassin slew firebrand ANC leader Chris Hani, de Klerk asked Mandela to address the nation on television and urge calm.
At that moment, many South Africans say, it became clear who their new leader would be.
Mandela was elected the nation’s first black president in 1994, in the nation’s first all-inclusive elections. For his deputy president, he chose de Klerk.