JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Inside a Catholic church that once served as a major rallying point for anti-apartheid activists, the image of a gray-suited Nelson Mandela appears in stained-glass window that also features angels and the cross.
Worshippers here prayed Sunday for the hospitalized 94-year-old former president, who remains almost a secular saint and a father figure to many in South Africa, a nation of 50 million people that has Africa’s top economy.
Mandela’s admission to the hospital this weekend for unspecified medical tests sparked screaming newspapers headlines and ripples of fear in the public that the frail leader is fading further away.
And as his African National Congress political party stands ready to pick its leader who likely will be the nation’s next president, some believe governing party politicians have abandoned Mandela’s integrity and magnanimity in a seemingly unending string of corruption scandals. That leaves many wondering who can lead the country the way the ailing Mandela once did.
“When you have someone that’s willing to lead by example like he did, it makes things easier for people to follow,” said Thabile Manana, who worshipped Sunday at Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church. “Lately, the examples are not so nice. It’s hard. I’m scared for the country.”
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting racist white rule, became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 and served one five-year term. The Nobel laureate later retired from public life to live in his remote village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape area, and last made a public appearance when his country hosted the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.
On Saturday, the office of President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela had been admitted to a Pretoria hospital for medical tests and care that was “consistent for his age.” Zuma visited Mandela on Sunday morning at the hospital and found the former leader to be “comfortable and in good care,” presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement. Maharaj offered no other details about Mandela, nor what medical tests he had undergone since entering the hospital.
In February, Mandela spent a night in a hospital for a minor diagnostic surgery to determine the cause of an abdominal complaint. In January 2011, Mandela was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital for what officials initially described as tests but what turned out to be an acute respiratory infection.
Mandela has had other health problems. He contracted tuberculosis during his years in prison and had surgery for an enlarged prostate gland in 1985. In 2001, Mandela underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy for prostate cancer, ultimately beating the disease.
While South Africa’s government has offered no details about where Mandela is receiving treatment, the military has taken over his medical care since the 2011 respiratory infection. At 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria on Sunday, the facility that previously cared for Mandela in February, soldiers set up a checkpoint to search vehicles heading into the hospital’s grounds. A convoy of cars with flashing lights and sirens entered the hospital grounds Sunday afternoon.
Mandela’s hospitalization quickly dominated news coverage in South Africa, where most have been focused on the upcoming ANC national convention later this month in Mangaung. There, the party that has governed South Africa since Mandela’s election will pick either pick a new leader or re-elect Zuma to helm the organization. Becoming leader of the ANC means a nearly automatic ticket to becoming the president in post-apartheid South Africa.
Zuma, 70, faces increasing criticism as the nation’s poor blacks, who believed the end of apartheid would bring economic prosperity, face the same poverty as before while politicians and the elite get richer. Meanwhile the economy continues to struggle amid slow growth and the aftermath of violent unrest in the country’s mining industry.
Zuma also faces criticism over millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made at his private homestead. But that’s merely the tip of the corruption allegations swirling around the party, which critics say is increasingly tarnished. Textbooks have gone undelivered to rural schools, while local ANC officials have been arrested and convicted of corruption charges. Others have been attacked or killed in politically tinged violence as the party’s convention draws closer.
“It’s becoming corrupt every day … and it’s growing worse,” said Sidney Matlana, a worshipper at Regina Mundi. “Things are getting worse than it was before.”
Yet Zuma remains a charismatic leader and still gets widespread support from Zulus, South Africa’s largest ethnic group. He appears likely to hold onto power as provincial nominations ahead of the national meeting largely have supported him.
Despite that, those leaving worship Sunday at Regina Mundi stressed the need for South Africa’s politicians to follow Mandela’s example.
It was here that anti-apartheid crusaders gathered to plan, pray and to mourn their dead, a church Mandela himself once called a “battlefield between forces of democracy and those who did not hesitate to violate a place of religion with tear gas, dogs and guns.”
Mandela’s stained-glass image stands just right of another portraying a man carrying the corpse of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was gunned down by police in Soweto in a peaceful 1976 student protest.
Worshippers acknowledged Sunday they didn’t know which politician would be able to live up to Mandela’s legacy.
“Every person has got his time,” churchgoer Lerato Mhlala said. “Someone must come in and take his place as well.”