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Mandela’s Daughter Explains State of Icon’s Health

Nelson Mandela, in the twilight of life, doesn’t talk much anymore, his eldest daughter says. She spoke about his health, saying he has “good days and bad days.”

Nelson Mandela, in the twilight of life, does not talk much any more, his eldest daughter says.

But the former South African president, who wrote of his regret at being unable to devote himself to his family during the fight against apartheid and afterward, reaches out in another way.

“It’s the hand that he stretches out. It is the touching of the hand that speaks volumes for me. And for me, if you ask me what I would treasure, it is this moment that I treasure with my father,” says Makaziwe Mandela, the oldest of Mandela’s three surviving children, all daughters.

“It means, ‘My child, I’m here.’ It means to me that, ‘I’m here. I love you. I care.’”

It could be the story of any family, this intimate encounter between an elderly parent beset by illness and a child with whom relations have, over many decades, been challenging or negligible.

That the father and daughter communication has become so elemental also sheds light on the fragile state of a larger-than-life figure, revered for his sacrifice during 27 years as a prisoner of apartheid and his peacemaking role in South Africa’s shift to a democracy inclusive of all races.

“My dad has not been in good, perfect health over the past month. And he has good days and he has bad days,” Makaziwe Mandela says in an interview with The Associated Press at her home, where a bust of her father, made from bronze and the wood of a railway tie, sits on a piano in the foyer.

One of those bad days was April 29, when state television broadcast footage of a visit by President Jacob Zuma and other leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to  Nelson Mandela, at his Johannesburg home.

Zuma said Mandela was in good shape, but the footage — the first public images of the former president in nearly a year — showed him silent and unresponsive, even when Zuma tried to hold his hand.

Makaziwe Mandela says her family is grateful that the “movement,” as she refers to the ANC leadership, still visits her father. The broadcasting of the video, however, was unfortunate, she says. Critics allege that the ANC was trying to score political points by its association with the former president. The party fiercely denies it.

“In previous visits, there was no need to take a picture. What happened this time, I don’t know,” she says.

Makaziwe Mandela is one of four children from her father’s first marriage to Evelyn Mase, which ended in divorce. The other three died — one in infancy, one in a car crash and one from an AIDS-related illness.

She says the “dignity and privacy” of her father, also a father to the nation, is sometimes under threat, complaining that 20 journalists one day in May converged on her father’s home, where he receives medical treatment, after an ambulance left to fetch medicine from a hospital.

“This is really utter madness,” she says. “This thing that everybody has got to be the first one to hear when Nelson Mandela goes, is not right. All of you will have your opportunity. You will get the news from the presidency at the right time.”

During Nelson Mandela’s recent stay in hospital for pneumonia, which ended on April 6, Zuma’s office issued brief, regular updates on his health.

On some past occasions, conflicting reports from the government contributed to mistrust between authorities and the media.

Fascination with Mandela stems from the sense that he is on a par with others whose human shortcomings were overshadowed by their contributions to humanity, including Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

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