Revered icon, 91, now rarely seen in spotlight

NELSON MANDELA remains revered the world over but is rarely seen in public two decades after a walk to freedom that captivated South Africa and the world.

The anti-apartheid icon’s minders jealously guard his privacy in a plush Johannesburg suburb, limiting the increasingly frail 91-year-old’s public engagements.

“We don’t discuss his private life apart from saying that he sees friends and family and does what other normal retired people do, reads and watches TV,” Achmat Dangor, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison on February 11, 1990, kicked off a frenzy of political negotiations with the then apartheid government that led to the end of the system of institutionalised racial discrimination and his becoming South Africa’s first black leader.

The then 71-year-old became the symbol of reconciliation and was seen as the glue holding the country together.

Admired and loved by all South Africans regardless of race, he slowly retreated from the limelight after stepping down as president in 1999.

Mandela occasionally gives an audience to visiting leaders or celebrities but even these visits have become rare and the foundation is forced every few months to deny reports his health is failing.

The foundation and friends say he is enjoying a well-deserved retirement, but tries to keep up-to-date with political developments.

“He reads at least four newspapers a day next to his easy chair (and) he watches the news on television,” said George Bizos, the close friend, lawyer and activist who helped defend Mandela in his 1963 treason trial.

But as you would expect for a man in his 90s, his memory is beginning to fade.

“He receives old friends. His memory is not very good about recent matters, but it’s very, very good about what happened in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and ’70s,” Bizos said.

Mandela’s primary focus is now his family and he steers clear of politics.

The ruling ANC’s decision to parade him at a rally ahead of last year’s election was roundly condemned, including by his own foundation.

His influence on the country, though, cannot be underestimated, from his trademark shuffling dance to the famous donning of the springbok rugby jersey — a symbol of Afrikaner pride — when South Africa won the 1995 rugby World Cup.

That act united the nation for the first time in its history and inspired the movie Invictus and an academy award nomination for Morgan Freeman, who played the president.

Media houses are now more preoccupied with his state of health, and at any public engagement, his appearance is scrutinised for any change.

“As he is ageing he has to have more and more rest, but unfortunately every now and then the media picks up from somewhere and spreads it that he is on his last lap, which is all nonsense, it’s just that he takes things easy,” friend and fellow ex-political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada said.

“But he is fine, as a person of (nearly) 92 can be.”

Mandela himself shrugs off the concern.

“I do feel like I am getting old. Time is flying. I’m not really worried,” he was quoted by SAPA news agency saying this month.

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