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Ailing Mandela still able to unite South Africans

Tuesday - 7/2/2013, 3:24am  ET

Jessica Mbangeni, center, performs a poem for former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Monday, July 1, 2013. Former president Nelson Mandela remained in a critical condition on Monday. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
Associated Press

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- The spelling and grammar need work, but the message has its own eloquence.

A 10-year-old's note to Nelson Mandela, the prisoner who fought South African apartheid, or white racist rule, and became a global emblem of unity and humility, addresses him as "the greates president are land has ever had it is realy bad that you are in the hospital. But realy cool that you stopt apartit. you maid are land A beter place"

It is one of hundreds of messages that have been placed at two makeshift shrines by South Africans and others who are celebrating the life and legacy of Mandela, 94, even as some openly lament that his life may be approaching an end.

The South African government said Monday that Mandela remains in "critical but stable" condition in the hospital where he was admitted on June 8.

The hospital in downtown Pretoria is one of those pilgrimage sites; the other is his home in Houghton, a tree-lined neighborhood in Johannesburg where high walls ring expansive homes.

A swell of well-wishers has deposited letters, paintings, candles, stuffed bears and bouquets of flowers outside these spots, reflecting the cathartic mood of a nation whose identity is so closely linked to an ailing man who is out of public sight. It is a bittersweet time for South Africa, proud of its power to reconcile amid racial conflict but struggling to fulfill expectations of a better life two decades after the end of apartheid.

The former president is visited daily by his family, and on Monday the three other surviving defendants in the sabotage trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 visited the hospital.

Even in this most vulnerable moment, Mandela is again emerging as an enabler, this time for a new generation, across racial and gender lines.

"I am a 16 year old girl who wanted to meet you very much. Unfortunately I did not have the oppurtunity, but even in the early stages of my life I decided that I wanted to be a caring, loving person just like you," writes Carien Struwig, who left her telephone number on a note at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital entrance, perhaps hopeful that she might get summoned inside.

"Ps. I am Afrikaans, sorry for any incorrect spelling or grammar," she writes in English.

Mandela reached out to the Afrikaner community that devised apartheid and jailed him for 27 years, negotiating an end to white minority rule and allaying fears of widespread racial war. Freed in 1990, the anti-apartheid leader was elected president in an all-race vote in 1994, an event that electrified people around the world because of its sense of peaceful promise.

The mood at these impromptu shrines is partly festive and partly mournful, likely a harbinger of the outpouring that will accompany Mandela's inevitable demise. His protracted illness, the final struggle of a momentous life, has become a time for national introspection and a chance for people to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

People pray, hands pressed to faces. Choirs sing and sashay. On Saturday, a group of Pentecostal worshippers stood outside the hospital gates, wailing, shouting and gesturing. A wall of photographers recorded the emotional paroxysm.

An artist displayed a painting of a robust-looking Mandela with a finger on his lips, symbolizing his perceived desire for quiet as he battles a recurring lung infection and other ailments. When President Barack Obama was visiting South Africa this weekend, three men in dark suits and sunglasses, apparently members of the presidential security detail, soaked up the scene at the hospital entrance. One of the men politely declined to speak to an Associated Press reporter, saying he was off-duty and would get in trouble if he spoke to the media.

The sense of occasion is across the country, including Cape Town, where an exhibition about Mandela recently opened in a civic center; in coastal Durban, where a mass prayer session was held; in Qunu, the rural village where Mandela grew up and where he is expected to be buried; and Soweto, the area of Johannesburg where he once lived.

On Soweto's Vilakazi Street, a tourist hub where Mandela's old brick home has been turned into a museum, two rappers sang about Mandela, patting their chests for a beat. Impressionist Peter Bopape imitated Mandela's raspy, deliberately paced voice.

"I decided to come out of the hospital today, just to come and thank all the South Africans and the support that you're showing me," Bopape said in Mandela's stately tones.

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