Nelson Mandela: Not such a happy birthday

In spite of reports that Mandela's health has improved, he remains critically ill in hospital on his 95th birthday. Nor is the prognosis for South Africa good

Of the many, many birthdays that Nelson Mandela has marked in adversity, his 95th – which falls today – will be one of the sadder ones. In spite of reports that his health has improved since the crisis of last month, he remains critically ill in hospital. No one is pretending that the prognosis is good. All South Africa, indeed the whole world, is preparing for the inevitable.

This is not the time to consider what will happen when South Africa has the legacy and the memory, but no longer the physical presence, of Mr Mandela. It is perhaps worth reflecting, though, how dependent South Africa still appears to be on the survival of the extraordinary individual who led them out of apartheid in peace and asking how far that reflects the greatness of the man and the inadequacies of those leaders who have followed.

More immediately pertinent, and tragic, are the quarrels that have surfaced in the extended family, even as the man himself came close to death. As successful as Mr Mandela was in uniting his nation, he was never able to spread the same harmony in his own family. Matters came to a head two weeks ago, when his wife and more than a dozen members of his family took one of his grandsons to court.

The macabre dispute concerned the bodies of three of Mr Mandela’s children, which his eldest grandson, Mandla, reburied on his own estate, apparently – or so it was charged in the affidavit – to ensure that Mr Mandela himself would be buried there, too. Mandla’s idea, it seems, was to ensure a thriving memorial business in years to come. He lost the case and the bodies have now been moved back to Mr Mandela’s home in the Eastern Cape, where he is expected to be buried when the time comes. 

The family quarrels and the sometimes intrusive approach of the world’s media have, between them, threatened to lend a distasteful taint to the twilight of Mr Mandela’s life. He deserves better. Today, of all days, is an opportunity to celebrate the life of a justifiably revered leader and an extraordinary human being.