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Watching the Watchdog: Watching Mandela With Bated Breath

06/24/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 08/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

It is winter in South Africa and inside Pretoria's Mediclinic Heart Hospital the old lion lies dying. He's been there for more than two weeks with a lung infection, apparently hasn't spoken or opened his eyes for days.

Outside the hospital, kept at a distance by armed police, scores of the world's foreign correspondents and South Africa's own journalists keep the vigil, the death watch. Day after day after day they wait, rushing to interview anyone who goes in or comes out. Desperate for news. Anything.

Most of all, though, they're waiting for the word.

Men, women and children crowd flowers, pictures and get-well cards against the hospital's security wall. "We love you," they say. And "viva Madiba." And "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika."

And life continues in the rest of South Africa.

Yes, Mandela is a hero -- even a living god -- to the people he saved from the evil that was apartheid. Yes, he and his comrades avoided a bloody race war and set the nation on the path to freedom and democracy.

But South Africans are a tough people. They've lived with violence and with death and disappointment for centuries.

Since the most awful of times when Europeans wielding guns and bibles seized their lands and tried to break their spirit, through the bitter centuries of white racism that followed, they've survived.

Unbroken.

South Africans laugh when they're happy and laugh when they're sad. They laugh when they meet you and laugh when you part. And they laugh when you or they've said something more than usually wise or done something more than usually foolish.

And now, when their magnificent revolution shows every sign of turning to bitterness and ashes, their hopes to despair, and their great leader lies dying, they laugh to keep from crying.

As the South African author Alan Paton wrote 65 years ago, there is much to cry about.

"Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end."

In spite of the hope that was Mandela alive, these things that are part of South Africa's history are not yet at an end.

After the tears that will follow Madiba's death, South Africans will still go about their daily business.

And they will surely laugh because that's all they know, and that's how they've always endured.

Tim Knight lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa for eight years.

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