Madiba dies, freedom dies - Times LIVE
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Madiba dies, freedom dies

Robyn Curnow | 2012-02-27 00:13:17.0
Former President Nelson Mandela smiles at home in Houghton, after casting his vote, in this May 16, 2011 file photo.

When Nelson Mandela was admitted to hospital, South Africans took a deep breath and prepared themselves for the worst.

Despite the government issuing statements telling people not to panic, they did. Mandela holds such a special place in South Africans' hearts that they fortify themselves against the inevitable day when he takes his last breath.

At 93, many are grateful that the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner is still with them. He has long left the public and political stage but the knowledge that he is still around - enjoying retirement on a farm in Eastern Cape - gives them a sense of comfort.

Nelson Mandela is held in deep affection because he reminds South Africans of how far they have come. Mandela rekindles South Africans' nostalgia for a time when this country was a miracle of democracy. Mandela is the embodiment of the South Africa that was promised in the election of 1994.

The reality is that many South Africans worry that their "rainbow nation" no longer embodies Mandela's vision. With Mandela old and silent, there have been many worrying signs that this country has deviated from Mandela's path of reconciliation and democracy, a view held by many observers.

The government, under President Jacob Zuma, finds it challenging to embrace Mandela's dedication to a critical and probing free press. The new Protection of Information Bill could jail journalists and whistle-blowers for up to 25 years if they are caught in possession of classified state information.

The government has refused to add a "public interest" clause, which would limit the scope of this legislation. The government says this law aims to protect the country from foreign enemies. However, civil society groups say it is an attempt to muzzle the press, which has been vigorous in reporting corruption in the government.

Corruption has for many been the cancer at the heart of modern-day South Africa. It seems not a day goes by without a civil servant being outed for dodgy dealings.

The former police chief is in prison for accepting bribes from a crime boss, the wife of the minister of state security has been found guilty of drug trafficking, and Schabir Schaik, Zuma's former financial adviser who was jailed for fraud and corruption, barely served his sentence and is on "medical parole" despite having been seen playing golf by journalists.

Limpopo was recently declared "technically bankrupt" by the Treasury after the discovery that there was "unauthorised and irregular" spending by the provincial leadership. Observers say the looting of state coffers is not limited to Limpopo .

The cornerstone of Mandela's legacy, the Constitution, has always been a soothing balm even to those most pessimistic about South Africa's prospects. No matter the challenges that convulse society, there was always the sense that the work of the judiciary and the Constitutional Court would protect the democratic edifice.

When Zuma recently said in a newspaper interview that he was considering a "review" of the work of the Constitutional Court there was a deep sense of dismay. Many people have been left wondering why the ANC-led government would tinker with the foundations of Mandela's South Africa.

Mandela is said by those close to him to be suffering from a form of senile dementia, which doctors say is common in the very old. He gets confused, and is easily upset and agitated. Importantly, for a man who was obsessed with the news, his family and the military now largely protect him from the details of everyday life.

If he really understood what was going on around him, what would Nelson Mandela say about an apartheid-era law that was being used to threaten journalists trying to report on his health?

Ironically, the government is using the National Key Points and Strategic Installations Bill - previously known as the feared National Key Points Act - to increase the powers of the security structures to declare, in secret, buildings that are of "national importance". This law was created in 1980 at the height of the state of emergency and policed by apartheid forces.

When reporters stood on the perimeter of the military hospital in Pretoria believed to be where Mandela was being treated, they were threatened with arrest if they filmed the hospital building.

One photographer was detained briefly and has since been released. The same law has been evoked in a case against two news agencies, which apparently set up cameras outside Mandela's Eastern Cape home.

Legal experts hope that case goes to court because they say this "key points" legislation could not pass a constitutional test.

Despite many contradictions, South Africa remains a beautiful and extraordinary nation.

Present-day South Africa is so much better than in those dark, ugly days when Nelson Mandela was in jail and the racist laws subjugated most citizens.

However, the reason South Africans panic when they hear Mandela is unwell is that they think about their future.

They worry that when the day that Mandela goes finally arrives the country will lose its democratic anchor.

Curnow is a CNN correspondent and anchor. Follow her on Twitter @RobynCurnowCNN


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