South Africa is confronted with a grim reality this week: Soon, Nelson Mandela will die.
For the second time this month, the former president is being treated in a South African hospital. This time, the South African government says that his condition is critical. South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, called Sunday for the world to pray for the nation's former leader. Mandela is nearing his 95th birthday. Humans, generally, don't make it much longer than that.
This is a country where a national controversy arose when Nelson Mandela was pictured in an oxygen mask (so strong is the desire to not think about the leader's failing health), and a country where 12.5 million school children sang "Happy Birthday" in unison to celebrate his 93rd year. So the headline on the front page of the Sunday Times in South Africa, "It's Time to Let Him Go," is no insignificant turn of sentiment. In the article, Andrew Mlangeni, who was imprisoned with Mandela for much of his life said this: "The family must release him so that God may have his own way. They must release him spiritually and put their faith in the hands of God. Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow."
But is the rest of South Africa ready for his passing? Other reports describe Mandela as "the glue that is holding the country together," and many in the country call him Tata, which means father, making his passing all the more personal. In Qunu, Mandela's hometown residents have particularly strong emotions on the issue, as the local press reports.
Nomishini Krexa, who lives in the village, said: "I ask myself, where will we be when he's not around? I ask, what would we do here in Qunu, how would our lives be?
"Because of him we have grants so we can feed our children. We have toilets, we have electricity. We would like to let him go, but we're scared. He has done so much for us"
As the BBC reports, "So deep is the affection in South Africa for the country's first black president, Nelson Mandela, that the thought of his passing seems incomprehensible."
There are reasons to fear for the future of the country without the guiding presence of a "father" (however inactive politically he has been over the last years). While apartheid is long over, inequality still abounds. "Post-apartheid South Africa rapidly reintegrated itself into the world economy under the leadership of Mandela and subsequently the Mbeki and Jacob Zuma governments," wrote John Campbell, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, in The Atlantic. "But it largely left in place the national economy inherited from the apartheid state, which did not grow fast enough to meet the needs of the country's rapidly expanding population."
Adding to that, the BBC describes "a culture of tribalism is slowly creeping into the fibre of the new South Africa," and the question that perhaps has everyone fearful is this: Can Mandela's vision of the country live on after he goes? Mandela has been absent from public life since an appearance at the 2010 World Cup. It's not so much his day-to-day impact people fear losing, it's something more esoteric. They're afraid of losing his idea.
"We no longer have an icon on his level, not only here in South Africa but in the world," Somadoda Fikeni, head of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, told the BBC. "People see him as the antidote to the current social ills we are faced with. That is why people are still holding on to him."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.