Madiba’s final hours
Family members were allowed into his room in pairs or in threes and allowed private moments with him, writes Debora Patta
We’d been preparing a long time for the day that Nelson Mandela would be with us no more.
It came as no surprise after half a year of illness.
But despite the preparation, when the news was announced by President Jacob Zuma it felt like a punch in the gut.
The words ‘Nelson Mandela has died …’ are awkward, clumsy and difficult to say. They did not come easily in those late night hours.
Earlier this week there were hints that something was up, first with Mandela’s eldest daughter Makaziwe’s unusual comment that her father was putting up a courageous fight from his “deathbed” where “he is teaching us lessons; lessons in patience, in love, lessons of tolerance”.
On Tuesday night, Zuma learned of Mandela’s deteriorating condition and that his death was imminent.
On Wednesday, word came from his house in Houghton that his already critical condition had worsened. He was fading fast.
Mandela had not spoken a single word for months. He was unable to breathe without medical intervention and was receiving dialysis treatment.
But the danger of life supporting machines is that tubes can become infected or blocked, and during his long hospitalisation first in Pretoria’s Heart Hospital and then at home in a room transformed into an intensive care unit, Mandela had to undergo several surgical procedures.
Different sources tell different tales.
“There was more fluid on his lungs but this time it was too difficult to do anything,” said one.
“He had contracted a serious infection and was antibiotic resistant,” said another.
“His blood pressure was so low that there was little doctors could do,” said a third.
The message in each whispered, painful phrase was that he couldn’t be saved, not this time.
During Wednesday and Thursday, Mandela’s wife, Graça Machel, urgently summoned the family to his deathbed.
At first they came slowly, but by Thursday it was a lot more frantic. The family was dispersed: grandson Mandla cancelled a trip to Cape Town on Friday and flew to Johannesburg.
Younger daughters Zenani and Zindzi were in London for the premier of The Long Walk to Freedom with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and his wife, Kate.
Moments before her father’s death, Zindzi told reporters on the red carpet: “My father is fine. He’s 95 years old and he is pretty frail. We are hoping to see more of him.”
But back home, he was entering the final moments of his life. His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was there and preparing to stay overnight. Those in the house speak of an overwhelming sadness that engulfed it.
Family members were allowed into his room in pairs or in threes and allowed private moments with him.
Household members watched as grandchildren and extended family left the bedroom sobbing.
Alongside Graça and Winnie, were grandchildren Mandla, his brother, Mbuso, and granddaughter Ndileka.
At about 8.50pm Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died.
I first heard the news at 9.27pm, the sources impeccable. I had been told that Madiba had died so often before, but I knew this time it was true.
I did not cry, but became flooded with adrenaline, readying myself to broadcast the news.
Zindzi and Zenani heard upon entering the cinema in London, and rushed out of the movie screening to catch the first flight home.
Zuma was informed and asked to go the house as quickly as possible. He then left for the Union Buildings to announce the news to the nation.
“He is now resting. He is now at peace,” Zuma said.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
Still, I did not cry, consumed with unbroken work. A giant had left us. This was a passing like no other.
It was not just Mandela’s biological family who were profoundly affected by his death. He had a large staff who has faithfully and with great love served him since he retired from politics.
Mandela was always able to talk to anyone from any walk of life. He was always sure to remember the hidden people, those who were seldom acknowledged. His staff tell me he always had a ready smile for them, a loving word, a teasing rebuke.
One senior household member who travelled up and down with Mandela to Qunu was particularly close to him.
When I met her during an interview with Graça in Qunu last year, she told me that Mandela loved it when she massaged his aching feet.
She can’t believe now that she will never get to place a blanket lovingly over his knees or massage away his pain.
Together with all the staff on Thursday night, she was overwhelmed with grief but as another told me: “We just had to get on with it. It was time to do our job. He was always our strength, now it’s our turn.”
As I write this on Saturday morning, the tears flow easily and often.
Many predicted bloodshed and hatred following his death, and that our tears would overwhelm us. But they forget who we are: Madiba’s children, whose grief quickly became an explosion of song and dance.
Outside Mandela’s Houghton home, a beautiful shrine of candles, flowers and loving tributes sprang up. At midnight on Friday, 24 hours after the announcement of his death, South Africans, black and white, young and old, rich and poor were dancing up and down his street singing: “Nelson Mandela, my President.”
When I left at 2.30am on Saturday, even more people were coming to pay their respects.
This was the send-off Nelson Mandela would have adored. Song, dance, jubilation and tears of joy. I suspect Madiba was looking on, smiling his approval, with a twinkle in his eye.