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A global prayer for Mandela

/ 03:21 AM July 01, 2013

Well-wishers sing and pray for the health of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, Sunday, June 30, 2013. AP PHOTO/MARKUS SCHREIBER

As Nelson Mandela lingers in a South African hospital, yet another remarkable moment is helping to seal his legacy: Millions of people around the world, united by respect and gratitude, are preparing for this beloved man to die.

The preparations take many forms: prayers and vigils, pictures and candles, headlines and YouTube videos.

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All are measurements of his legend, and yet as the 94-year-old Mandela’s hospitalization continues, the anticipation has left many caught in an awkward limbo, sharing on a global scale what is usually a private scenario.

There is no one in the world like Mandela—a victim who both governed and forgave his tormentors, a figure so universally admired that his countless honors include both America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Soviet Union’s Order of Lenin.

So as the days have passed since his hospitalization on June 8—the slow decline of a giant broadcast everywhere with the speed, detail and distortion that are hallmarks of the Internet age—his vigil, too, has been unique.

Power of forgiveness

The world is waiting to honor the man who proved the power of unity and forgiveness, said Lori Brown, a sociology professor at Meredith College in North Carolina.

“It is possible to honor him while he is alive, but the massive funeral, the media focus on his entire life, the showing of video clips of his speeches, the reading of his writings, these are all part of what we sociologists call rites of passage,” Brown said.

“His death will allow for not only global grieving of his passing but a global celebration of his life,” she said. “The world will own his memory, while right now his illness and life are more private and ‘owned’ by his family.”

Everywhere, families know this type of personal experience. They grapple with the belief that the end is near and with reluctance to speak of it. They measure their respect for life against the desire for an incapacitated loved one to be freed from it.

Now this struggle is playing out for members of the world family who treasure Mandela’s story.

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Celebrating his life

“There’s something very uncomfortable about the waiting,” said Robert Kraft, a psychology professor at Otterbein University in Ohio and author of an upcoming book on South Africa.

Even thinking about “closure” at a moment like this, Kraft said, “is extremely uncomfortable for someone we love.”

Actor Dennis Haysbert, who portrayed Mandela in the film “Goodbye Bafana,” has felt deep emotions since Mandela entered the hospital with what the South African government said was a lung infection.

“I am not waiting for his death. I am celebrating him as he lives,” Haysbert said.

Still, it’s hard to discuss. “We’re still talking about a living, breathing human being, talking in anticipation of his demise, of his passing. That’s hard, but I understand it. I understand the need to do it. It’s a matter of preparation,” Haysbert said.

“I would imagine he’s preparing himself,” he continued. “And I think that everyone who loves him, who respects him, who truly honors him are preparing themselves for it.”

 

Nationwide prayers

Those preparations are most difficult and visible in South Africa, where Mandela led a peaceful transition from racist white rule to a democratically elected government, which he headed. There have been nationwide prayers, tokens of support left in makeshift shrines— and throngs upon throngs of media.

Said Makaziwe Mandela, one of Mandela’s daughters, of the media glare: “It’s like truly vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo, waiting there for the last carcasses.”

Later, Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said: “If we sometimes sound bitter, it is because we are dealing with a very difficult situation. You can understand our emotions.”

The intense interest in Mandela’s decline is due to his resonance around the world.

In Britain, the archbishop of York issued a special prayer for Mandela.

A YouTube “Pledge for Peace: I Am Nelson Mandela” campaign inspired videos from Japan, Mexico, Russia, Australia, Italy and India.

In Bangladesh, the popular actor Hasan Masood wrote on Facebook: “Nelson Mandela, please get well soon. May God give you the strength to come back.”

A headline in a Malaysian newspaper read: “Everyone’s Hero.”

“I am very angry,” said Mariana Alves in Madrid, who believes Mandela’s illness stems from harsh treatment during his 27 years in prison. “But you have to admire that he was able to forgive those who treated him so badly and finally condemned him to die this way, breathless.”

Truly great

In Australia and the Netherlands, there were false reports of Mandela’s death—the latter prompting an Amsterdam neighborhood council to observe a minute of silence in his honor.

“I think we just have to leave him peacefully,” said Ramesh Pasupuleti, parking his car in north London’s Mandela Street, one of several so named. “If the time comes, the time comes. We are all grateful for what he has done.”

People feel as if they know Mandela, said Kraft, the psychologist.

“He was not secretive. When he experienced joy he smiled, he danced, he hugged, he embraced. He put himself and his emotions out in public. We also saw his struggles,” he said.

“I think he is one of the truly great people of the last 100 years. It’s not as if a somewhat lesser person is dying, or a beloved celebrity is dying. We are aware that greatness is going to be gone,” Kraft continued. “It’s a little different than someone else who is simply well known and accomplished.”

How does one prepare?

And when the end does come, whenever that may be, it, too, will be different.

“I don’t think you can really prepare for it,” said Haysbert, the actor. “What does that mean, you’re not going to feel the emotion of it?”

“You’re thinking that you prepared yourself for it until it happens,” he said. “Then it just sort of smacks you.”

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