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“Of course I have been saying to people, you should bear in mind Madiba is no longer that young and if he goes for check-ups every now and again, I don’t think people must be alarmed about it,” Zuma told the BBC on Thursday.
“In Zulu, when someone passes away who is very old, people say he or she has ‘gone home’. I think those are some of the things we should be thinking about.”
Madiba is the clan name by which many South Africans refer to Mandela, whose face adorns the country’s new bank notes.
Despite his absence from the political scene for the past decade, he remains an enduring and beloved symbol of the struggle against racism.
“He’s like a father to me … There is no more apartheid, black and white can go to the same places,” said Princess Nopuhle, a student, aged 18, in Johannesburg’s Mandela Square.
As he has receded from public life, critics say his ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost the moral compass he bequeathed it when he stepped down as president in 1999.
Under such leaders as Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, the ANC gained wide international respect when it battled white rule.
LEADER OF “GOLDEN PERIOD”
Once the yoke of apartheid was thrown off in 1994, it began governing South Africa in a blaze of goodwill from world leaders who viewed it as a beacon for a troubled continent and world.
Almost two decades later, this image has dimmed as ANC leaders have been accused of indulging in the spoils of office, squandering mineral resources and engaging in power struggles.
Mandela has been criticised for not doing enough to prevent an HIV/AIDS epidemic and for making political compromises in the transition from apartheid that led to the black majority being still largely excluded from the benefits of the country’s mineral wealth.
But his achievement in leading South Africa out of apartheid and averting all-out racial war is seen as eclipsing this.
“Amongst most South Africans, he is associated with a so-called ‘golden period’ of the end of apartheid and the beginning of the new democratic state. He represents all of the best of that, including the reconciliation,” said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst.
Mandela was in hospital briefly earlier this month for a check-up and spent nearly three weeks in hospital in December with a lung infection and after surgery to remove gallstones.
That was his longest stay in hospital since his release from prison in 1990 after serving almost three decades for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government.
Mandela has a history of lung problems dating back to when he contracted tuberculosis as a political prisoner.
Many South Africans said they felt the country’s problems had worsened since Mandela withdrew from active politics.
“There was more peace and freedom when he was running it. Now the splits have come back again,” said Natascha Roberts, taking pictures of her family in front of a towering statue of Mandela at the Sandton City mall in suburban Johannesburg.
“If he can go on for another few years, it would be great.” (Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Alistair Lyon)