Nelson Mandela’s latest bout of ill health – more serious than any so far – has reminded the world of the 95-year-old’s mortality. And with that reminder has come much broader contemplation over the fragility of South Africa, the country his stature has helped to uplift. So often has the former president appeared to be something of a deity for South Africans, something bigger than an individual. At an African National Congress (ANC) conference last week, it was noted that Mandela has been, “the embodiment and personification of our collective spirit of resistance.” More than that, he has been the talisman of his country’s modern history, a history that has long been so firmly anchored around the apartheid era. Indeed, apartheid’s shadow is seemingly cast indelibly over the country – for better and for worse. South Africa’s achievements so often appear all the more remarkable because of what has gone before, its failures seem tainted by the irrevocable stain of a divided past.

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