Nelson Mandela’s lengthy absence from the spotlight has forced his adoring country to envisage what their hard-won and often fraught multi-racial democracy means without the man who forged it.
The beloved and frail 94-year-old, who is back in hospital with a lung infection, still embodies for most South Africans the “Rainbow Nation” he strived for despite endless persecution at the hands of white apartheid rulers.
However having stepped out of the public eye nearly a decade ago, during which South Africa has battled turbulent political crises and scandals, analysts say Mandela’s influence has waned.
“The bottom line is that Mr Mandela has not been at the moral and political centre of South Africa for a very long time,” political commentator Eusebius McKaiser said of the former president last seen in public in 2010.
“We have let go of him ages ago.”
Despite his absence, South Africa’s first black president, remains a powerful symbol of racial unity nearly 20 years after he pledged a new era for his bitterly divided nation.
Testimony to this is the emotional bond that South Africans feel to him. With familial affection, he is often simply known as “tata” (father) or “tatamkhulu” (grandfather) by young and old, black and white.
But analysts agree that his influence on daily life has long faded.
“I think there will be concerns from outside South Africa that Mandela is seen as the glue that holds South Africa together,” analyst Daniel Silke told AFP.
“But I think that this is something long gone frankly.”
With Mandela having made his last political speech in 2009, South Africa’s political arena has shifted radically since he ushered in the heady leap into multi-race democracy.
“The point needs to be made that society and politics have changed in South Africa since the Mandela era,” said Silke.
“I just don’t think that Nelson Mandela’s passing is going to have any dramatic effect on domestic politics in South Africa,” he added.
Increasing acceptance of his mortality, with increasing hospital stays, has also seen the once-taboo topic of death broached as South Africa contemplates itself as a post-Mandela society.
His hospitalisation has triggered an outpouring of wishes for his recovery.
But this is often motivated by a genuine love for the man and his role in shaping the country, rather than melodramatic fears for South Africa, said McKaiser.
He said it was not Mandela’s mere presence which saved South Africa from becoming the next Zimbabwe — the country’s restive neighbour where white farmers saw their land seized — or from other instability.
“We, independent of his physical existence, are responsible for why the country has not been collapsing and so his non-existence cannot be a game changer.”
Viewed as his greatest gift to South Africa, Mandela paved the way for peaceful reconciliation, which he selflessly strived for despite being incarcerated by the apartheid government for 27 years, and which saw the fragile nation sidestep civil war.
“I think we live in a generation where we’re incredibly grateful for what he did, especially my parents are also,” said school pupil Thingo Mthombeni, 18, in Soweto.
“Because then they get to see their children go to good schools and integrate with other people and other races, which is pretty awesome.”
A pull-back on reconciliation as many feared was unlikely, said Silke.
“The issue of reconciliation I think permeates South African politics way beyond the era of Nelson Mandela,” he said.
During Mandela’s longest hospital stay as a free man in December, an article “Nelson Mandela is going to die – it’s sad, but it’s ok” was penned.
In it, GroundUp editor Nathan Geffen argued that South Africa held together not because of the Mandela of today but because of his work over his lifetime.
“It is insulting to Mandela to suggest that his lifetime’s work will unravel at the end of his lifetime,” he wrote.