Jacquelyn Martin, Pool-File, Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG — A chipped street mural in South Africa's Soweto township depicts stations in the life of Nelson Mandela, each matched by a portrait of the global icon as he advanced from robust youth to old age. Now this infirm giant of history faces a struggle with mortality, its duration unknown but its outcome certain.
There may be no living figure so revered around the world as a symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation, his legacy forged in the fight against apartheid, the system of white minority rule that imprisoned him for 27 years.
As an idea, Mandela is monumental. As a 94-year-old man, he is frail and vulnerable, in hospital since Dec. 8, shielded from outside scrutiny by protective relatives and the South African government and military.
"He's sick. What can we do? He's sick," said Beauty Sedunedi, a Soweto resident who described Mandela as a hero. "People are crying, 'Oh, he mustn't die, he mustn't...' If God says 'come,' he'll come."
The former president would probably agree with that down-to-earth sentiment, as a man who is said to have been uncomfortable with his iconic status. The narrative of what he endured and what he contributed in the name of all South Africans tends to eclipse any personal failings, or shortcomings as a president when he took office for a five-year term after the country's first democratic elections in 1994. The country today struggles with poverty and inequality, but Mandela is widely credited with helping to avert race-driven chaos as South Africa emerged from apartheid.
He was diagnosed with a lung infection and had a procedure to remove gallstones after being admitted to a Pretoria hospital, and the South African presidency said Monday that Mandela would spend Christmas Day there. The physical decline of Mandela, who boxed in his youth and exercised regularly in prison, could be anyone's story; an ordinary man would make this wistful journey alone, or within the cocoon of family intimacy.
In the case of a man-turned-myth, however, the media, the government and the nation are passengers on what has become an awkward ride, defined by tension between the right to medical privacy and the public's interest.
"They were very secretive about his health," Sebastian Moloi, another resident of the Johannesburg township of Soweto, said of the government's initial, sometimes contradictory pronouncements about Mandela's condition. "They shouldn't keep it away from the public."
Moloi spoke outside Regina Mundi, a Catholic church that was a center of protests and funeral services for activists during the apartheid years. He said Mandela was the "godfather" of South Africa, but objected to extreme discretion about Mandela's hospital stay, saying: "He gets enough privacy in his home."
Officials have reported that Mandela has steadily improved, but warn the situation is inherently uncertain because of his age. The media has urged the government to provide regular updates or briefings with doctors. Dire rumors have swirled on social media, angering Mac Maharaj, the presidency's spokesman.
"Why are there no voices raised in our society against the human depravity manifested in such rumors?" Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet, quoted Maharaj as saying. "It has become a matter of concern. Is it not time for all of us to look at ourselves in the mirror?"
In fact, Mandela's public image has been closely managed for a long time. He has not been seen on a major stage since South Africa hosted the World Cup football tournament in 2010, and his meetings have become increasingly rare.
In August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mandela at his home in the village of Qunu in Eastern Cape province. An Associated Press photographer who accompanied Clinton said the former leader appeared "fragile although also happy," and seemed pleased to see his visitor.
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