Brian Edwards Media

I express my disgust at prayers for Mandela’s life.

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I find it hard to contain my disgust at the response in South Africa and abroad to Nelson Mandela’s hospitalisation for what is quite clearly a terminal illness. It has been nothing short of ghoulish.

Mandela is 94. Given what he has experienced in that long life, it is perhaps surprising that he has survived to such a ripe old age. Now it is time to let him go.

But ‘letting him go’ has not been an acceptable option for the country’s politicians, its churches and many of its citizens. The nation is encouraged to ‘pray for Madiba’ – not for a peaceful end to his suffering, but for the extension of that suffering or, at best, his survival in what may be little more than a zombie-like state. What masquerades as loving concern is in fact the ultimate selfishness.

I’m an atheist, so I see prayer as having no function other perhaps than to comfort the supplicant. But my objection to the prayers for Mandela springs not from my unbelief, but from the very notion of asking God to prolong the life of a terminally ill 94-year-old man. Because the inevitable corollary of that  prayer being answered is that it will  be repeated again and again, on each and every future occasion that Mandela is taken ill. In essence only eternal life for their hero can satisfy Madiba’s followers.

What South Africa and the world needs to do is to mourn Mandela’s death when it occurs and, when the mourning time is over, celebrate the life he lived. Instead, we crowd like vultures around the hospital bed of a dying man, some savouring titbits of hope, others in the expectation of gathering the first morsels of publicity that will increase their journalistic reputations.

As I say, I find it hard to contain my disgust.


  1. Fair enough too – I think people are rightly wondering what is going on with this excessive clinging to life and hoping against all odds, which seems bizarre.

    The media reports have failed to tell the back story, which I gather is about political posturing and positioning and a history of conflict between ANC and Inkatha.

    I’m guessing there is a real fear of mass violence and even civil war?

  2. 2

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    Some years ago I attended the bedside of an old man, my partner’s grandfather. There was little left for him – in fact it seemed there was little left of him – and yet nurses would jolly him with remarks like – ‘you will be fine’.
    When they left the room his grand daughter whispered to him that it was ok for him to go. He looked relieved, smiled, then left.

    I’m not advocating hopelessness for the ill or aged but, like you, I wonder the point of prolonging suffering or suspending reality and pointless magical thinking.

  3. I am not an atheist Brian – but I completely agree. In some perverse way, this is an extension of the absurd and hysterical scenes that followed Princess Diana’s death. Worse is likely to come – when Mandela does die, there may well be unseemly riots.

    • The cases bear no comparison.

      Before you start rewriting history to suit yourself, I’ll remind you that there were no “absurd and hysterical” scenes after the Princess’s death. I challenge you to provide evidence of hysteria or absurdity.

      People behaved with decorum, dignity and genuine (and quiet) expressions of heartfelt sorrow. The funeral procession was silent. Placing of flowers for a deceased person is neither unusual nor inappropriate.

      Any hysteria was on the part of the media, who saw mainly the departure of a reliable cash cow.

      What did tend to verge on the absurd and hysterical were the loud arguments by the usual superior refuseniks who made a public display of how callous and unfeeling they were about the whole tragic business, and how stupid the rest of the populace was for noticing that a remarkable person had left us, and caring about her. And they’re still feeling superior,apparently.

  4. Seeking to understand prayer through rational atheism is like trying to listen to music by looking at an album cover. But I agree, the whole Mandela dying circus is extremely ghoulish. (and FYI I have no Christian or other religious faith)

  5. There is nothing black and white, right or wrong, saved or damned in this world, it is a massive collection of absolute paradoxes in which the word ‘my truth’ comes in seven billion different forms, each one is equally valid. Everyone on this planet has their own individual truth to speak and it is in respecting each of their truths that you find the reality that many people call God (unconditional acceptance/love).
    Mr Mandela found his ‘way’ very early on in life and has unconditionally shown the world that reality ever since, and that is what people are honouring. Let them be, let each honour his ‘way’, in their way.

    • “it is a massive collection of absolute paradoxes in which the word ‘my truth’ comes in seven billion different forms, each one is equally valid.”

      Oh dear, this requires me to accept that Hitler’s truth was “equally valid” to Ghandi’s truth.

      And I can find no “honour” in the secrecy, lying and deceit that has surrouned Mandela’s illness. As one close friend righly observed, in his last days Mandela seemed to have swapped a prison cell for a hospital prison bed.

      • @Bryan. “this requires me to accept that Hitler’s truth was “equally valid” to Ghandi’s truth.” Come now Brian, realy? Who did the greater evil? Hitler (one man), or the countless millions of German people who bought his dreams to life? Collective consciousness is how human beings change the world. When enough people believe in something, the world follows. Ghandis ‘way’ achieved exactly that. No one man does anything without influencing countless millions. That’s what Nelson Mandela has done. Thats why he is being eulogized in death. Right? Wrong? I won’t judge.
        Back to your blog: In my experience, humanity rather neatly falls into two very clear personality/parenting ‘types’, judges and nurturers. Not surprisingly, the judges almost always inhabit the political right and their parenting is based on, “I will judge you as my parents judged me and you will rise to my judgement or lose my support (conditional ‘tough’ love). Nurturers on the other hand almost always inhabit the political left and their parenting ethic is based on the unconditionally loving parenting ethic (I will love you no matter what, as my parents did with me).
        I am a nurturer, and I’m pretty sure Nelson M is. As for you? I will leave you with your own choices, and the best thing of all, you are free to make it without criticism.

        • I simply took your view that every human being’s truth was “equally valid’ to its logical conclusion: Hitler’ s truth was as valid as Gandhi’s. I’ve no idea what the relevance is of your response.

    • What have you been smoking Paul Mack? The parasitic behaviour of the hangers on seating next to Mandela, I find very disturbing. “Watch as I hold the hand of an South African icon and thus some of his goodness will flow to me”. Also, I give your ideas little validity as you so easily combine facts, faith, belief, God etc. to make a point. I am a person of cause and effect, please leave out the faith and belief!

  6. I’m an atheist too, but who exactly is praying for an extension of his suffering?

    Zuma has said ““All of us in the country should accept the fact that Madiba is now old. As he ages, his health will . . . trouble him, and I think what we need to do as a country is to pray for him to be well and that the doctors do their work.”

    Winnie has said “We continue to appeal to people to keep Madiba in their prayers and wish him a speedy recovery…”

    Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe has said “”All I pray for as a daughter is that the transition is smooth…”

    I’ve looked around, but can’t find any statements that back up your inference. I’m a long-time fan, Brian, but I think you’re interviewing your typewriter on this one.

    • The Zuma quote you cite here was a response to the very phenomenon I’ve described.

      Winnie is inviting people to wish a dying 94-year-old man barely able to breathe a speedy recovery.

      Your reference to Zuma reminds me that one of the most disturbing things I have seen was film of Zuma sitting with his hand on Mandela’s and speaking of how Mandela’s health was improving. Mandela appeared totally unaware of what was going on around him. There was no animation of any sort in his face. He looked, to all intents and purposes, like a corpse.

      Finally, I was, I would have thought, clearly not suggesting that those praying for Mandella to go on living were seeking an extension of his suffering but that that would be the de facto outcome of their prayers being answered.

      Meanwhile TV3 has a journalist and newsreader Hilary Barry camped outside the hospital with all the other reporters waiting to break the news, whatever that news is.

      If you ‘can’t find any statements [or reports] that back up my inference’, then you can’t have been looking very hard.

      • “Winnie is inviting people to wish a dying 94-year-old man barely able to breathe a speedy recovery.”

        I’ll agree – wholly removed from reality. The daughter had it right. Believe in what you like but it seems the poor man’s time is nigh.

        Praying for Mandela’s speedy recovery is a bit like all those people in Oklahoma and elsewhere thanking “God” they were spared harm in the latest tornado, seemingly oblivious of the fact that it was their God who sent it to tormnt them in the first place.

  7. I agree that it seems macabre to be praying for a longer dying for Mandela. In fairness though, I think it should be pointed out that many (most?) who do believe in the power of prayer – the ones who aren’t getting their remarks reported in the press – are most likely praying for a peaceful painless passing for the poor man.

  8. “If you ‘can’t find any statements [or reports] that back up my inference’, then you can’t have been looking very hard.”

    Perhaps not, but I have at least provided some evidence for my position. Anyhow, no point in going ’round and ’round; I’m sure you almost *never* lose an argument. ;)

    Good evening.

  9. I think most ordinary people both in South Africa and outside it have a common sense attitude to his age and illness.

    Politicians, some religious and media long ago abandoned common sense in favour of self-serving make-believe posturing and pretense. You may be disgusted but you can scarcely be surprised.

    • So who are these ‘ordinary’ people, are they of one or another predominant political persuasion as Paul Mack claims or are they just ordinary people that are not politicians, religious or media affiliated?

      What is the definition of ‘ordinary’ and is it by chance the same as a former Prime Minister one stated that the ‘ordinary’ person wouldn’t know a deficit if he tripped over one.

      If you are saying Alan, that politics, religion and the media operate at different levels than ‘ordinary’ people then are you suggesting the former are not ‘ordinary’ people and if not, what?

      • 9.1.1

        I thought it was obvious but apparently not. Politicians, and some of the religious and media have a vested interest in posturing and pretence. The rest of us don’t.

  10. Zindzi was only 18 months old when her father was sent to Robben island. Later, Winnie would be deeply torn by family discord which mirrored the country’s political strife; while her husband was serving a life sentence in the Robben Island prison, her father became the agriculture minister in the Transkei.

  11. This is prolonging the death, not prolonging the life. Mandela ran a very good and heroic race. He has earned a peaceful death. I find it sad that he is in an ICU surrounded by physicians. What he should be allowed to do is be in quite comfort with his family and slip peacefully away. Old man’s friend. If only they would allow it.

    Its a horror

  12. People have trouble preparing for and accepting death. Read “In the Midst of Life” by Jennifer Worth for a perspective.

  13. Prayer, at least in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is not just (or even primarily) to make supplication and requests – “give us today our daily bread…deliver us from evil”.

    It is also to attune those praying both personally and collectively so they can more readily accept the “box of chocolates” that is the providence of life – “your will be done on earth…” -, while also realising that the tragedies and short-comings of life are not the final word – “your kingdom come…as it is in heaven”. (And no, I don’t want to get into a theodicy argument, “if there really is a God why would he kill Nelson Mandela?”!).

    I don’t dispute there are some folks posturing and using this situation for selfish purposes, the media included. However, even though some may regard the prayer process as dropping coins in a slot and pulling the handle on the cosmic slot-machine, it would appear prayer may be doing some good in this situation – it is focusing the thoughts of South Africans on the immense contribution Mandela made to their country, and his personal qualities of courage, wisdom, and forgiveness, which they will collectively need to manifest and continue practicing after he inevitably goes.

    Whether it has any more effect than the psychological depends on your perspective on faith, and the possibility of transcendent and eternal realities guiding human affairs. Put it this way, I think only the staunchest anti-supernaturalist would hesitate to use the word “miracle” to describe what Mandela achieved, especially in the years after his release from imprisonment.

    Just saying…

  14. The Media [mainly television news]in discussing Mandela’s illness have stated that his terminal lung disease was caused by his long incarceration.
    I find it bizarre that the terminal illness of a 94 year old man should be attributed to anything but old age.
    Whilst in no way do I have any brief for his imprisonment or for those who imprisoned him it would appear to me that Mandela has exceeded the normal life expectancy of a male of his age and race.
    One wonders what age the Media would have expected him to live to if he had not been imprisoned.

  15. Seems to me Mandela is the archetypal poster boy for hope and peace in South Africa. I reckon they are really praying for what Mandela represented or what everyone has projected onto him. I guess the fear is with him gone what will happen ?
    Fear is a great motivator of prayer.

    Agreed in terms of an old man needing to bow out peacefully its sad that so many appear to want to prolong his dieing days, more for themselves than him.

    The appearance of death on any human horizon raises up the dust of a thousand fears.

    • Good comments, Richard: “God-fearing” used to be the term for people of faith, though why anyone would fear their all-loving God was never made clear to me at Sunday School.

      Fear of death makes old people pray, and the thought of an upcoming toasting forevermore at the hands of Lucifer himself really does put the wind uppem!

  16. Not as disgusting as some New Zealand journalists writing eulogies for Paul Holmes before he died. That must have been a world first.

  17. 17

    What disgusts me most of all (but only by a nose) is the media scrum outside the hospital. What do they hope to achieve? Are they waiting to ask friends and relatives, “How do you feel?”
    When he dies, there will be announcement and we can mourn his passing and celebrate his remarkable and courageous life.
    Until then, leave the man in peace.

  18. Only believe 10 percent of the news here in NZ. The rest is generally a media circus. I’m guessing it’s probably the same in SA news rooms and we are being fed 90 per cent rubbish. The truth is probably as you wish it was, and most people except his pending death and wish him peace.

  19. On this matter, Brian, you and I are in complete agreement.

    My grandfather was a GP, he taught me the following medical maxim:

    “Thou shalt not kill – but need not strive, officiously, to keep alive.”

    Mandela’s fathers await him – let him go to them.

  20. Alex Crawford reporting for Skynews said Mandela’s lungs had been weakened by his years on Robben Island! He’s 94. It’s just possible that he’d have died younger had he not been on a strict regimen. With food rationing the English were never fitter than during WW2. As for Zuma: he’s not one hundredth the man Mandela was, oops, is.

  21. What if my prayers and of South Africa and the world are answered will your unbelieve cause our prayers for Madiba Mandela to recover?