THE BIG READ: Walking the Madiba talk
And so we fret at the news of Nelson Mandela's continued hospitalisation and the prospect of his demise. And we should - for the man ended apartheid and built from its ruins a new, united nation.
I am sure the love professed so effusively is genuine and deeply felt - largely.
But why else are we distressed? Is it because we truly identify with the values he stood for?
If we are rich, do we mistakenly believe he personifies our unexpressed hope that social and economic change will happen only in word and never in deed? And the poor? Do they see their hopes of economic upliftment begin to dissipate?
When we say he is the father of the nation, do we mean that we are prepared to walk in his footsteps, to put his ideals into practical effect? Or do we just enjoy basking in the reflected glory of being associated with a world-famous man?
I suspect that, if they took the trouble to find out where Mandela stands on the vexing national issues of our time, many of his purported admirers might recoil in horror.
Take his views on political and economic change, expressed on his release in 1990: "There must be an end to white monopoly on political power, and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed and our society thoroughly democratised."
He added at another time: "There are many people in South Africa who are rich and who can share those riches with those not so fortunate [and] who have not been able to conquer poverty. If you are poor, you are not likely to live long."
Some claim Mandela compromised the economic interests of black South Africans.
In reality, Mandela achieved the political challenge of his generation - he dismantled apartheid. The outstanding challenge of eradicating poverty and economic inequality is for our generation, which enjoys political freedom and the right to vote and to engage.
Though political change has occurred, our country remains one of the most economically unequal in the world.
We have remained quite lackadaisical in the face of rampant unemployment and poverty, something for which we will yet pay a heavy price.
In this regard, too many of the well-to-do purport to want to see change, but without sacrifice on their part.
And Mandela's opinion on racism? He famously declared in 1964: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
This declaration showed a deep commitment to non-racialism - a universal value which made it so easy for the global community to support the anti-apartheid struggle.
In South Africa today, leaders and officials sometimes act as if they are the masters of the citizens. On being freed from prison, Mandela stated: "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."
In another instance, he averred that real leaders "must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people".
Education is another national issue close to Mandela's heart.
"Education," he said, "is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation."
Apposite words today, when the quality of our schooling system, especially in the townships and rural areas, is in doubt.
But perhaps of all Mandela's declared standpoints none has been more misrepresented than that on national reconciliation, portrayed by some as the only issue he was ever interested in. If you were white, it would have sounded reassuring, implying partly a kind of interracial détente with room to salvage as much privilege as possible.
On the other hand, if you were black, for years on the receiving end of racial discrimination and economic exclusion, talk of reconciliation might have felt like the thwarting of a legitimate claim to restitution, whereby the winners, the majority, would take all.
Yet Mandela's basis for urging national reconciliation had more to do with laying the basis to build a new, united nation out of the destructive divisions of the past. At his inauguration, he sought to explain his thinking thus: "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."
In fact, the concept of racial reconciliation was not invented by Nelson Mandela.
The idea of a united human race has long been a cherished ideal. It was Martin Luther King jnr who explained it thus: "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
So, why do we seek to hold on to Madiba?
Do we see him as the doting elder who forgives and condones our every national vice, like ignoring the poor, denying the majority of our children a proper education, and promoting tribalism and racism? Or do we see him as the honourable parent who, having set the example, expects us to follow in his steps?
On Madiba's retirement from active politics 14 years ago, his successor, Thabo Mbeki, called him "our nearest and brightest star to guide us on our way".
The question for us is: Do we indeed see Madiba as our lodestar or as just a national mascot to be trundled out now and then, at our convenience?
Perhaps, instead of looking to him to solve all our national problems, we should honour him by heeding his advice.
The important thing, he has said, "is not the mere fact that we have lived; it is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead".