Mandela family and friends rankled by media fascination with death watch
'All the preparations, all the talk of Madiba as if he is already dead. It is something offensive' -- young resident of Mandela's home town.
Qunu, South Africa
On a gentle slope overlooking Nelson Mandelaâ€™s country home, workmen were busyÂ today building a new dirt road leading to the south-facing meadow chosen as the global iconâ€™s final resting place
On the 10-acre fenced hillside beyond, contractors paced a freshly flattened area ringed with low acacia bushes and newly planted clusters of red-flowered aloes, the signature species of South Africaâ€™s Eastern Cape.Â
This work may be necessary for when South Africaâ€™s revered first black president passes on. The cluster of villages is called Qunu and it is where Mr. Mandela â€“ whose clan name is Madiba â€“ grew up herding sheep and cattle, and it is where he requested burial.Â
But there is something both distasteful and taboo in Qunu about preparing for the time after someoneâ€™s death, before they die.Â
â€śWe know for someone like Madiba, things have to be ready,â€ť says Sikholiwe Nduna, a college-age kid in a green beanie hat who was watching goats graze the land his father owns overlooking Mandelaâ€™s home.
â€śBut some people here, they are finding it very difficult. All the preparations, all the talk of Madiba as if he is already dead. It is something offensive, and at emotional times like this, it annoys people.â€ť
The international media, and their daily calls to check unceasing rumors about Mandelaâ€™s demise, have borne the brunt of criticism for â€śburying him before he is dead,â€ť in Mr. Nduna's words. At the same time, many residents of Qunu expressed immense pride and gratitude at reports of millions of people around the world praying for Mandelaâ€™s recovery.Â
One online publication this week actually ran a story that the senior statesman and moral icon had died, which later proved to be greatly exaggerated, to evoke Mark Twain's phrase.Â
Perhaps the most evocative expression of family irritation came from Mandela's eldest daughter, Makaziwe, in an interviewÂ yesterday with South Africaâ€™s state broadcaster, SABC.
â€śIt's like truly vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo, waiting there for the last carcasses,â€ť she said. â€śThat's the image that we have, as a family.â€ť
Her nephew, Mandla, said in a statement that all people, not just the media, who were speculating on Mandelaâ€™s illness should â€śdesist from spreading mischievous rumors.â€ť
Winnie Mandela, the statesmanâ€™s ex-wife, weighed inÂ today. â€śIt becomes difficult to understand the seeming impatience and statements like 'It is time for the family to let go',â€ť she told reporters in Soweto.
â€śThese are insensitive statements that no one would like to be made about their grandfather. Please understand the sensitivities and feelings of the family," she said.
In Qunu, apart from the crew laying the new road and one lonely international television cameraman leaning on his tripod opposite Mandelaâ€™s house, life continued as normalÂ today.
â€śWhy shouldnâ€™t it?â€ť asks Themba Toni, standing huddled with friends against the chilly morning air. â€śIt is very wrong to assume someone is going to die. Instead, everyone should be praying for his recovery.â€ť
In the tradition of the Xhosa, the tribe whose myriad clans populate these lands, preparing for someoneâ€™s death offends the spirits, says Nokuzola Tetani, who works at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu.
â€śEven if your father or husband is very sick and in the hospital, you must wake in the morning and open the doors and windows to his house, and sweep the floor and keep it tidy,â€ť she says.
â€śIf you shut it up, the ancestors will see, and think you have shut up the person too. You need to show them that you expect the person to get better.â€ť