Mandela: At 88, the icon lives on

South Africa’s first black president closed in on his 90th birthday last Tuesday amid little of the pomp and fanfare that has characterised much of his public appearances, choosing instead to have a quiet celebration with his close family.

Madiba, as Mandela is affectionately known, celebrated his 88th birthday at his rural Eastern Cape home in Qunu, far from the madding crowd that has held him in high esteem for most of his political life.

The legend of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle has chosen to cut down on his public appearances more and more since his retirement from official duties in 2004.

Mandela is said to spend a lot of his time now “browsing bookshops in search of large-print novels”.

A significant amount of his time is also spent at the property that he and his wife Graca Machel own in Mozambique’s capital of Maputo . A place that his personal assistant says has become a “sacred space” at which he can relax.

“He is not supposed to be working any longer and the book (The sequel to his biography Long Walk to Freedom) became a burden, so we told him that he should put it aside.

“One wants to allow him to enjoy life now and be free from any obligation. “He asked to be retired now… it’s not a decision that was taken by his office, and from our side we decided to lessen the burden on him,” Mandela’s personal assistant and spokesperson Zelda La Grange told The Star last week.

“This shift is taking place in response to Madiba’s own request. He has retired formally from public life,” the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Verne Harris said.

“Madiba has given us at the foundation his personal mandate to shift to memory and dialogue work,” Harris told another local weekly.

Family members say Mandela’s waning health has been the major reason behind his slow exit from public life, as he now struggles to remember “even very recent things” and “his legs are still giving him trouble”. But those that have had the pleasure of being in his gradually waning presence say Madiba “remains in good spirits and his ‘almost wicked’ sense of humour . . . show no sign of disappearing”.

They say his thoughts are constantly turned to the welfare of his family, the ongoing struggles in the African National Congress (ANC) and the bitter battle that he has pledged to take on against the vicious scourges of HIV/AIDS and poverty.

The move to “memory and dialogue work” appears to focus particularly on engagements through which the statesman will be remembered and through which his foundation will be able to facilitate dialogue on important issues “pressing on Madiba’s heart”.

July 2006
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