Nelson Mandela’s Final Battle: Dying With Dignity

July 17, 2013 Updated: July 18, 2013

DURBAN, South Africa—If I were an ailing Nelson Mandela, and, at all conscious of the storms surrounding me, I might not be in such a hurry to open my eyes.

My diagnosis of “critical but stable” might change rapidly were I to find out how fiercely members of my own family are battling over my remains and the funds I had provided for them in a special trust administered by people I trusted.

This spectacle could kill me!

As thousands of South Africans hold prayer sessions outside his Pretoria hospital, and with the world media still on an escalating death watch, inside, there are clashes among and between family members, government officials trying to control and spin health information, and, even, doctors who have been cited, wrongly, in court battles about his condition.

There had been an official denial of a claim that he is in a vegetative state, along with unsubstantiated rumors that he is being kept alive at least until July 18, his 95th birthday, a day marked worldwide as Mandela Day to encourage community service.

Meanwhile, a sideshow sparked by warring family members robs the occasion of any of the dignity it deserves with one daughter of an earlier marriage, and her daughter, lashing out in an obvious bid for money and even to control media coverage with a demand that CNN, a foreign network, should be given preferential access to cover the funeral, possibly upstaging the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster.

The South African soap opera surrounding Mandela’s long goodbye plays into the trivialization of what should be a more solemn occasion.

Perhaps, that’s why this whole unseemly family feud is being denounced by the likes of Archbishop Tutu while gobbling up acres of newsprint in the world press.

Mandela is being given the dying celebrity treatment with the focus on personality—not politics, and on his iconic status—not his role as freedom fighter sent to prison for organizing armed resistance.

His universally loved smile and heroic story has been downplayed in the narrative of grim health bulletins and angry accusations by some in the family who never seem to miss an opportunity to insert themselves into what should be a solemn media moment. Some of the Mandela children even have their own reality TV series carried locally on Fox.

Family Members At Odds

The man who survived 27 years of imprisonment and earlier medical emergencies behind bars has to cope with the resentment of some of the people who knew him best.

Here are some of the players in this daily drama.

There’s Makaziwe Mandela, the oldest daughter from the first wife who seems still to be nursing anger at not being acknowledged enough. Articulate and well-educated, she’s been given interviews for years not-so-subtly criticizing her dad for being the father of the nation more than her father. He has acknowledged not always being there for his children, but the bashing goes on.

She’s also been a lead actor in the lawsuit against the administrators of a trust that include George Bizos, the legendary defense lawyer and lifetime Mandela friend. He expressed public disgust by what he described as an outrageous demand for money.

Then, there’s a battle between his nephew Mandla who claims to be tribal chief and was caught unburying members of the Mandela clan. He is battling with both a tribal king who has fired him from his chieftaincy, and the daughters who see him as an embarrassment. This conflict is headed for court on a serious charge of grave violation.

At issue right now is the question where Mandela and his relatives should be buried. The Mail & Guardian’s Phillip de Wet asks:

“Who is winning the grave fight? Everyone but Mandla Mandela. Almost all the rest of the family have lined up against him, including (according to court documents) (his wife Graca) Machel and (ex-wife) Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Mandla had a weak legal case to begin with, but was completely out-played in court.”

You can’t make nonstop dueling up, or tune it out in the media din.

Meanwhile, a government inter-ministerial committee is planning the funeral with family members while construction workers upgrade the airport and roads near his rural home anticipating a tourist invasion to a grave that is already being viewed as a shrine, even as Mandela himself has said repeatedly he was no saint or savior.

Legacy in and Among the Media

What is worth considering is that Mandela’s fame grew throughout the years when the South African government blocked his image from being shown or him being quoted in the press. His legend blossomed in the absence of press coverage, even as now it may be diminished by the expected media oversaturation that will follow his death.

I have been covering the South African story for many years and recall, with disgust, the many calls I received from TV program bookers who heard I had made films with Mandela and thought I could get them what is known in the trade as “the big get,” an exclusive interview.

When I pressed the callers on what they wanted to learn, I was told, just having him on was as important as anything he might have to say.

They were like the big white African hunters who saw him as game, just another personality to buttress their wannabe credibility.

Who knows? For them, bagging such big prey could lead to a raise.

Meanwhile, the TV networks have to staff their round-the-clock stakeouts. That’s why Nelson Mandela is known among “journos” as an FBR, the freelancer’s best friend. You can bet that once Mandela is gone, so will be their interest in South Africa.

News Dissector Danny Schechter is a writer and filmmaker who is working in South Africa on a documentary about the forthcoming Mandela bio-pic “Long Walk To Freedom.” He blogs at Newsdissector.net and edits Mediachannel.org. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Danny Schechter
Danny Schechter