The hospitalization of the father of South Africa's liberation comes amid turmoil in the governing party that is his legacy.
JOHANNESBURG — Inside a Catholic church that once served as a major rallying point for anti-apartheid activists, the image of a gray-suited Nelson Mandela appears in a stained-glass window that also features angels and the cross.
Worshippers here prayed Sunday for the hospitalized 94-year-old former president, who remains almost a secular saint and a father figure to many in South Africa, a nation of 50 million people that has Africa’s top economy.
Mandela’s admission to the hospital this weekend for unspecified medical tests sparked screaming newspapers headlines and ripples of fear in the public that the frail leader is fading further away.
And as his African National Congress (ANC) political party stands ready to pick its leader who likely will be the nation’s next president, some believe governing-party politicians have abandoned Mandela’s integrity and magnanimity in a seemingly unending string of corruption scandals. That leaves many wondering who can lead the country the way the ailing Mandela once did.
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“When you have someone that’s willing to lead by example like he did, it makes things easier for people to follow,” said Thabile Manana, who worshipped Sunday at Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church. “Lately, the examples are not so nice. It’s hard. I’m scared for the country.”
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting racist white rule, became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 and served one five-year term. The Nobel laureate later retired from public life to live in his remote village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape area, and last made a public appearance when his country hosted the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.
On Saturday, the office of President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela had been admitted to a Pretoria hospital for medical tests and care that was “consistent for his age.”
Zuma visited Mandela on Sunday morning at the hospital and found the former leader to be “comfortable and in good care,” presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement. Maharaj offered no other details about Mandela, nor what medical tests he had undergone since entering the hospital.
In February, Mandela spent a night in a hospital for a minor diagnostic surgery to determine the cause of an abdominal complaint. In January 2011, Mandela was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital for what officials initially described as tests but what turned out to be an acute respiratory infection.
Mandela has had other health problems. He contracted tuberculosis during his years in prison and had surgery for an enlarged prostate gland in 1985. In 2001, Mandela underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy for prostate cancer, ultimately beating the disease.
While South Africa’s government has offered no details about where Mandela is receiving treatment, the military has taken over his medical care since the 2011 respiratory infection. At 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria on Sunday, the facility that previously cared for Mandela in February, soldiers set up a checkpoint to search vehicles heading into the hospital’s grounds. A convoy of cars with flashing lights and sirens entered the hospital grounds Sunday afternoon.
Mandela’s hospitalization quickly dominated news coverage in South Africa, where most have been focused on the upcoming ANC national convention later this month in Mangaung. There, the party that has governed South Africa since Mandela’s election will pick either a new leader or re-elect Zuma. Becoming leader of the ANC means a nearly automatic ticket to becoming the president in post-apartheid South Africa.
Zuma, 70, faces increasing criticism as the nation’s poor blacks, who believed the end of apartheid would bring economic prosperity, face the same poverty as before while politicians and the elite get richer. Meanwhile the economy continues to struggle amid slow growth and the aftermath of violent unrest in the country’s mining industry.
Zuma also faces criticism over millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made at his private homestead.
Zuma’s scandalous $30 million, government-paid renovations to his sprawling private residence in Nkandla (a controversy known locally as Nkandlagate) have so damaged him in the ANC leadership contest that one loyal minister said critics of the expenditures didn’t understand African values and lifestyles.
But that’s merely the tip of the corruption allegations swirling around the party, which critics say is increasingly tarnished. Textbooks have gone undelivered to rural schools, while local ANC officials have been arrested and convicted of corruption charges. Others have been attacked or killed in politically tinged violence as the party’s convention draws closer.
“It’s becoming corrupt every day … and it’s growing worse,” said Sidney Matlana, a worshipper at Regina Mundi. “Things are getting worse than it was before.”
Zuma is also under attack for his current defiance of a Supreme Court order that his lawyers hand over secret intelligence tapes that led prosecutors to drop about 700 corruption and fraud charges against him just weeks before 2009 elections.
Unease over his leadership within the ANC and among the public has deepened since strikes that resulted in 34 protesting miners being killed by police in August.
Zuma has always been a controversial leader. He was accused of rape in 2005 by the daughter of a senior ANC colleague; he was acquitted in 2006. Corruption charges, dropped in 2009, continue to hover in the background, with the possibility that if his enemies succeed in ousting him in December — or sometime in the future — he could be put back on trial.
Presidents here aren’t elected by the people, but by members of Parliament who belong to the majority party.
In the ANC, the presidency is decided by about 4,500 branch party delegates who gather every five years to elect a leader, who is then rubber-stamped as president by ANC lawmakers.
The illiterate son of a poor Durban housemaid, Zuma rose through the party ranks to join its military wing during the armed struggle against apartheid.
He was arrested on conspiracy charges and jailed for 10 years in 1963. He served his term with leaders such as Mandela on Robben Island, where he learned to read.