JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – He looked older and frailer than many had remembered; his hair seemed to be a brighter shade of white. But the Mandela magic was still there; the sunny shirt, sunnier smile and enduring aura of the world’s greatest political icon.
The video and images, released Monday, showed 92-year-old Nelson Mandela voting in municipal elections, two days ahead of the rest of the nation. He was photographed as a special ballot box was delivered to his Johannesburg mansion, so he didn’t have to travel to a polling station. It was the first sighting of the ‘The Father of the Nation’ since he was admitted to the hospital with a respiratory illness in January.
Millions of South Africans were warmed by the images — and, perhaps few more than the leaders of his party, the African National Congress (ANC). They stand to benefit from the publication of the pictures.
Some have even suggested that the event was part of a cynical attempt by politicians and bureaucrats to capitalize on the mystique of a frail, old man. “Is this any way to treat an icon?” asked one blogger. “Will the reporters and the politicians ever let him rest?” asked one of Mandela’s neighbors as a crowd of journalists, officials and passers-by gathered at his home. “They’re here to see ‘the old man’. You can tell there’s an election coming,” remarked another.
There is close to no chance of the ANC losing this election. But analysts predict that it could be hit by an embarrassing drop in its share of the vote. Many poor, black voters might choose to stay at home because of dissatisfaction with government services, or the fading novelty of democracy. One survey, conducted by IPSOS, suggests that support may drop from 66 percent to 59 percent.
A high turnout would certainly benefit the ANC. And what better way to fight apathy, and remind black people of the price paid for the vote, than a picture of Mandela at a ballot box? Few people who lived through Apartheid could have seen the new images and avoided thoughts of the struggle that led to the creation of a free South Africa. Here was the elderly freedom fighter who had endured 27 years in prison, taking part in the democratic process that he had helped to create.
The photographs were published a few hours after they were taken. A little later, a 24-second video was released. Shortly afterwards, a statement was issued by the president, and ANC leader, President Jacob Zuma:
“The first president of the free democratic South Africa has led by example, we must now learn from him as we always do and go out in our millions to vote” he said.
Then, earlier today, Zuma went to visit Mandela in person. Rightly or not, many interpreted the visit as being a crude method of sending a simple message to the ANC’s traditional voters: voting would make Mr. Mandela proud.
The former leader is being used in the political weaponry of all sides. It is not just the ruling party which has found it irresistible to refer to his legacy. Helen Zille, the leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, used it as a way to attack her rivals.
Zille said: ”(The ANC) has finally abandoned the values of Nelson Mandela. (Some of their leaders) did their best to divide South Africans on the basis of race. They trampled on Nelson Mandela’s vision of building one rainbow nation with one shared future.”
With the man himself happily away from the limelight of public life, his name and achievements continue to be thrown about in the political dog-fight, ahead of Wednesday’s elections.
Mr. Mandela may have wanted to make this appearance as a way of boosting support for his party. After all, he loves the ANC and its ideals.
But he enjoys his privacy too — and yet it would be impossible for him to escape politics.