Outside his hospital’s green gate, hundreds of youths from the ruling African National Congress, brought here by the party in large buses, dance, sing and chant, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela.” Many wear the ANC’s green and yellow colors, some on T-shirts emblazoned with the face of South African President Jacob Zuma, who is running for reelection next year.
“There is no born-free without a liberator,” the back of one shirt reads. “Vote ANC 2014.”
Across South Africa, there is a political dimension to the national grief over Mandela, who remained critically ill but in stable condition Friday, as President Obama landed in the country on the second leg of his Africa visit. At a time when the ANC is facing immense challenges, its efforts to manage Mandela’s possibly last days and hours suggest it is seeking to be seen as the party best able to carry forward the anti-apartheid icon’s ideals and perpetuate his legacy.
In recent days, a revolving door of ANC leaders has visited the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in the administrative capital, Pretoria, often making a point during interviews of mentioning Mandela’s links to the ANC. The party has ordered its followers nationwide to attend group meetings to pray for his recovery, and Zuma has made it a priority to personally inform the nation about every development in his illness.
“There is an umbilical cord between Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress that cannot be broken,” Ace Magashule, the premier of Free State province and a top ANC leader, told a local television station Friday, outside the hospital.
The sharp deterioration in Mandela’s health comes amid significant questions about the ANC and its future after his death. Despite retiring from public life, the 94-year-old former president remains the party’s most beloved figure and its highest moral authority. Meanwhile, the current generation of leaders, including Zuma, has been criticized as elitist and corrupt.
There are also deep divisions inside the party, whose culture and actions have drawn denunciations even from revered stalwarts of the anti-apartheid era. One well-known activist, Mamphela Ramphele, recently launched a political party called Agang that could pose a significant challenge to the ANC in next year’s elections.
“Some ANC leaders want to cling on to brand Mandela, as members are leaving the party,” said William Gumede, a South African political analyst who has written extensively about the ANC. “They say, ‘Stay, this is still the party of Mandela.’ ”
Critics accuse the ANC, as well as other politicians, of exploiting the popular grief over Mandela by claiming him as their own. In an opinion piece in the local Business Day newspaper on Friday titled “Political vultures are circling over Mandela,” analyst Anthony Butler wrote that politicians would try to use “their allegedly close relationships with the great man to their political advantage.”
“Despite their better instincts, ANC professionals may well decide that ‘Mandela’s legacy’ is an inescapable theme for next year’s national and provincial elections,” said Butler, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town.
ANC officials deny that they are politicizing Mandela’s hospitalization, saying their accusers have their own political motives. “We went to the hospital to say ‘Madiba, get well,’ ” said Jackson Mthembu, the party’s national spokesman, using Mandela’s Xhosa clan name. “And we will continue do so. Nothing is going to stop us from going there. He’s our leader. We owe him that.”
Mandela matured politically inside the ANC, which he joined in 1943. In the 1950s, he was the national president of the ANC Youth League and was on the party’s national executive board. But it wasn’t until he was released from prison in 1990, after being incarcerated for 27 years, that Mandela became president of the ANC.
In 1994, after the ANC won South Africa’s first all-race elections, he became the country’s first black president. In 1999, he stepped down from office after one term and retired from public life, although he remained an immensely influential figure.
In recent years, disillusionment with the ANC and its current leadership has grown, despite the party’s political dominance, and it is widely seen as out of touch with South Africa’s impoverished masses. Last year, Zuma battled allegations that he had misused public money to renovate his private home. In April, the ANC came under fire for broadcasting images of Zuma and other senior ANC leaders posing with a lethargic, frail Mandela. They were accused of taking advantage of Mandela for political gain.
In interviews, South Africans said that Mandela is a key reason why they support the ANC, and some expressed concern about the party’s future after he dies.
“The ANC is so messed up right now,” said Vuyokazi Duna, 31, in Mandela’s ancestral village of Qunu. “When he passes on, I don’t know what will happen.”
Outside the hospital Friday, Nonkululeko Ketwa, a government employee, said the uncertainty was reason enough for Mandela to live longer. “We still need him,” she said.