As I write this Nelson Mandela is still with us. He may even still be living at the end of this year. But this is his fourth hospitaliZation in six months, and the prognosis for 94-year-old men with persistent lung infections is not good. How will South Africa do without him?
Wrong question, actually. In practice, South Africa has been doing without him for more than a decade already — but psychologically, it is just now getting to grips with the reality that he will soon be gone entirely.
For all its many faults and failures, post-apartheid South Africa is a miracle that few expected to happen. Although Mandela retired from the presidency in 1999, fourteen years later he is still seen as the man who made the magic work, and somehow the guarantor that it will go on working. If only in some vague and formless way, a great many people fear that his death will remove that safety net.
Just in the past two weeks, however, the tone of the discussion has begun to change. On hearing that Nelson Mandela had been admitted to hospital yet again, Andrew Mlangeni, one of his dearest friends and once a fellow-prisoner on Robben Island, said simply: "It's time to let him go. The family must release him, so that God may have his own way with him... Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow."
That one comment opened the floodgates, for it had a strong resonance in traditional African culture, which holds that a very sick person cannot die until his family "releases" him. They have to give him "permission" to die, by reassuring him that his loved ones will be fine when he's gone. So South Africans must now accept that they can get along without Nelson Mandela, and then he will be free to go.
It's not that everybody really believes in this tradition, but it frames the conversation in more positive and less distressing way. People can argue about whether or not South Africa is doing as well as it should, but they can at least agree that Mandela got the country safely through the most dangerous phase of the transition, and that they can carry on with the job of building a just and democratic society without him.
Except for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, of course. Mugabe has always deeply resented the fact that Nelson Mandela is revered as the father of his nation while he himself is seen as a vicious tyrant who has ruined his country. So he seized the opportunity of a recent high-profile interview on South African television to accuse Mandela of having failed in his duty to South Africa's black majority: he had been too soft on the whites.
What would have particularly annoyed Mandela, if he were well enough to watch the show, was that the interviewer was Dali Tambo, the son of his oldest and most trusted ally, the late Oliver Tambo. As young lawyers, the two men co-founded South Africa's first black-run legal office in 1952, and when Tambo became the president-in-exile of the African National Congress he made Mandela's release from prison its highest priority.
Dali Tambo is another kettle of fish: a flamboyant man who has traded on his family name to forge a career as a TV interviewer. He has his own soft-focus interview show, "People of the South," and recently he persuaded Robert Mugabe to give him a two-hour interview. In the course of it, Mugabe dismissed Mandela as "too much of a saint."
"Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of blacks," the Zimbabwean dictator said. "That's being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint."
Nonsense. What Nelson Mandela and his white negotiating partner, F.W. De Klerk, were trying to avoid in the early 1990s was a South African civil war that would have killed millions and lasted for a very long time. The 20 per cent white minority was heavily armed, and they had nowhere else to go. Their families, for the most part, had been in South Africa for at least a century.
Therefore, a settlement that gave South Africa a peaceful (and hopefully prosperous) democratic future had to be one in which the whites still had a future. So you either make the kind of deal that Mandela and De Klerk made, in which nobody loses too much, or you submit to a future that would make the current civil war in Syria look like a tea party.
And by the way, Mugabe was making his remarks in a country whose economy has been so devastated by his "tougher" approach that fully one-quarter of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, talking about Mandela's inevitable death, said last week: "The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up and running: a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered." That is still some distance away, but Mandela has laid the foundations. He was the right man for the job: a saint who also understood realpolitik.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.