Is This a Pandemic Being Born?

China's mysterious pig, duck, and people deaths could be connected. And that should worry us.

Here's how it would happen. Children playing along an urban river bank would spot hundreds of grotesque, bloated pig carcasses bobbing downstream. Hundreds of miles away, angry citizens would protest the rising stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rotting bodies collecting by the thousands along river banks. And three unrelated individuals would stagger into three different hospitals, gasping for air. Two would quickly die of severe pneumonia and the third would lay in critical condition in an intensive care unit for many days. Government officials would announce that a previously unknown virus had sickened three people, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to wonder how the pigs, ducks, swans, and people might be connected, the World Health Organization would release deliberately terse statements, offering little insight.

It reads like a movie plot -- I should know, as I was a consultant for Steven Soderbergh's Contagion. But the facts delineated are all true, and have transpired over the last six weeks in China. The events could, indeed, be unrelated, and the new virus, a form of influenza denoted as H7N9, may have already run its course, infecting just three people and killing two.

Or this could be how pandemics begin.

On March 10, residents of China's powerhouse metropolis, Shanghai, noticed some dead pigs floating among garbage flotsam in the city's Huangpu River. The vile carcasses appeared in Shanghai's most important tributary of the mighty Yangtze, a 71-mile river that is edged by the Bund, the city's main tourist area, and serves as the primary source of drinking water and ferry travel for the 23 million residents of the metropolis and its millions of visitors. The vision of a few dead pigs on the surface of the Huangpu was every bit as jarring for local Chinese as porcine carcasses would be for French strolling the Seine, Londoners along the Thames, or New Yorkers looking from the Brooklyn Bridge down on the East River.

And the nightmarish sight soon worsened, with more than 900 animal bodies found by sunset on that Sunday evening. The first few pig carcass numbers soon swelled into the thousands, turning Shanghai spring into a horror show that by March 20 would total more than 15,000 dead animals. The river zigzags its way from Zhejiang province, just to the south of Shanghai, a farming region inhabited by some 54 million people, and a major pork-raising district of China. Due to scandals over recent years in the pork industry, including substitution of rendered pig intestines for a toxic chemical, sold as heparin blood thinner that proved lethal to American cardiac patients, Chinese authorities had put identity tags on pigs' ears. The pig carcasses were swiftly traced back to key farms in Zhejiang, and terrified farmers admitted that they had dumped the dead animals into the Huangpu.

Few Chinese asked, "What killed the pigs?," because river pollution is so heinous across China that today people simply assume manufacturing chemicals or pesticides fill the nation's waterways, and are responsible for all such mysterious animals demises. The Yangtze, which feeds Shanghai's Huangpu, has copper pollution levels that are 100 times higher than U.S. safety standards, and leather tanning facilities along the river have notoriously been responsible for toxic waste, including chromium. And across China -- especially in Beijing -- air pollution was so bad in January and February that pollution particulate levels routinely peaked at higher than 10 times the U.S. safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. When I was in Beijing in late January, the air pollution was so thick that it visually looked like fog, obscuring all sunlight and even skyscrapers located less than three city blocks away. So, hideous as the pig carcasses might be, Shanghai residents tended to shrug them off as yet another example of the trade-offs China is making, pitting prosperity against pollution.

But 12 days after the first Shanghai porcine death flow was spotted, pig carcasses washed up along the shores of Changsha's primary river, the Xiang -- also a Yangtze tributary, this one located hundreds of miles west of Shanghai. Known as "the Sky City" for its 2,749-foot-tall central tower, Changsha is home to more than 7 million people and capital of Hunan province. Along with some 50 dead pigs, authorities collected a few thousand dead ducks from the Xiang on March 22 and 23.

Two days later, another mass duck and swan die-off was spotted, this time along the Sichuan River hundreds of miles to the north, near Lake Qinghai. The lake is the most important transit and nesting site for migratory aquatic birds that travel the vast Asia flyway, stretching from central Siberia to southern Indonesia. In 2005, a mass die-off of aquatic birds in and around Lake Qinghai resulted from a mutational change in the long-circulating bird flu virus, H5N1 -- a genetic shift that gave that virus a far larger species range, allowing H5N1 to spread for the first time across Russia, Ukraine and into Europe, the Middle East and North Africa -- it has remained in circulation across the vast expanse of Earth for the last seven years.

On March 25, Chinese authorities seized manufactured pork buns that were found to be made from Zhejiang pigs that had died of the mysterious ailment. The possibly contaminated pork was in the Chinese food supply. By the end of March, at least 20,000 pig carcasses and tens of thousands of ducks and swans had washed upon riverbanks that stretch from the Lake Qinghai area all the way to the East China Sea -- a distance roughly equivalent to the span between Miami and Boston. Nobody knows how many more thousands of birds and pigs have died, but gone uncounted as farmers buried or burned the carcasses to avoid reprimands from authorities.

While environmental clean-up and agricultural authorities scrambled to remove the unsightly corpses and provide the anxious public with less-than-believable explanations for their demise, a seemingly separate human drama was unfolding. On Feb. 19, a man identified by Xinhua, China's state news agency, only as Li, an 87-year old retiree, was hospitalized in Shanghai with severe respiratory distress and pneumonia. On March 4, Li went into severe cardio-respiratory failure and succumbed.

On Feb. 27, a man identified only as Wu, a 27-year-old butcher or meat processor, fell ill with respiratory distress, was hospitalized, and died on March 10. The day Wu succumbed a third individual, a 35-year-old woman identified as Han, was hospitalized in the city of Nanjing, though she came from distant Chuzhou City, in Anhui province, about 300 miles northwest of Shanghai. Han is reportedly in critical condition, in intensive care. To date, no connection between the three individuals has been found.

The elderly Li may have been part of a family cluster of illness, as his 55-year old son died of pneumonia in March, and another 67-year-old son suffered respiratory distress, but has survived.

On March 31 -- Easter in the United States -- China's newly created National Health and Family Planning Commission (which includes the former Ministry of Health) announced that 87-year-old Li, Wu, and Han all were infected with a form of influenza denoted as H7N9 -- a type of flu never previously known to infect human beings. The commission insisted that Li's two sons (one dead, the other a survivor) were not infected with the flu virus -- their ailments were reportedly coincidental, though they occurred at the same time as the elder Li's demise.

So much for the backstory: What is going on?

According to Chinese authorities, some of the dead pigs tested antibody-positive for circoviruses, or PCV-2, and samples of the virus were isolated from Huangpu River. The implication was that the Shanghai pigs died of PCV-2, a type of virus that is harmless to human beings, as well as birds. Photographs of the carcasses reveal that the animals were large adult hogs, but PCV-2 does not kill adult pigs -- it is lethal to fetuses and newborn piglets.

The Chinese health authorities have to date offered no cause of death for the ducks and swans, failed to describe any unusual genetic features that might have turned the PCV-2 into an adult pig-killer virus, and insisted there is no connection between the pigs, people, and birds. Though the surviving woman, Han, had some contact with live chickens, according to Xinhua, neither Li nor Wu had any known contact with birds. Wu has been identified variously as a butcher, meat processor, and employee of a meat plant -- all of which might imply he had contact with pigs.

Influenzas are named according to the specific nature of two proteins found on the virus -- the H stands for hemaggluntinin and the N for neuraminidase. These proteins play various roles in the flu-infection process, including latching onto receptors on the outside of the cells of animals to transmit the virus into their bodies. Those receptors can vary widely from one species to another, which is why most types of influenza viruses spreading now around the world are harmless to human beings. As far as any scientists know, the H7N9 forms of flu have never previously managed to infect human beings, or any mammals -- it is a class of the virus found exclusively in birds. It is therefore extremely worrying to find two people killed and one barely surviving due to H7N9 infection.

One very plausible explanation for this chain of Chinese events is that the H7N9 virus has undergone a mutation -- perhaps among spring migrating birds around Lake Qinghai. The mutation rendered the virus lethal for domestic ducks and swans. Because many Chinese farmers raise both pigs and ducks, the animals can share water supplies and be in fighting proximity over food -- the spread of flu from ducks to pigs, transforming avian flu into swine flu, has occurred many times. Once influenza adapts to pig cells, it is often possible for the virus to take human-transmissible form. That's precisely what happened in 2009 with the H1N1 swine flu, which spread around the world in a massive, but thankfully not terribly virulent, pandemic.

If the pigs, people, and birds have died in China from H7N9, it is imperative and urgent that the biological connection be made, and extensive research be done to determine how widespread human infection may be. Shanghai health authorities have tested dozens of people known to have been in contact with Wu and Li, none of whom have come up positive for H7N9 infection. Assuming the tests are accurate, the mystery of Li and Wu's infections only deepens. Moreover, if they are a "two of three," meaning two dead, of three known cases, the H7N9 virus is very virulent.

"At this point, these three are isolated cases with no evidence of human-to-human transmission", the WHO representative in China, Dr. Michael O'Leary, told reporters on Monday. But, O'Leary added, the possibility of a family cluster of illness could not be ruled out, and, "We don't know yet the causes of illness in the two sons, but naturally, if three people in one family acquire severe pneumonia in a short period of time, it raises a lot of concern."

But Hong Kong authorities, smarting from years of outbreaks spread from mainland China including H5N1 (1997) and SARS (2003), have put the territory on health alert. "We will heighten our vigilance and continue to maintain stringent port health measures in connection with this development," the Centre for Health Protection in Hong Kong stated in a press release on Monday.

The Chinese National Influenza Center has posted the H7N9 genetic sequences of viruses from Li, Wu, and Han on the WHO flu site. A number of H7N9 sequences found in birds over the last few years are also posted: The human and bird strains do not match, though none of the birds strains were obtained from animals in 2013.

The mystery is deep, the clock is ticking, and the world wants answers.

If we were imagining how a terrible pandemic would unfold, this could certainly serve as an excellent script.

Timeline of Events

Feb. 19

Feb. 27

March 4

March 9

  • First female patient, 35, from Anhui province became ill with H7N9 (Telegraph).

March 10

  • Initial report of over 900 dead pigs in Shanghai's Huangpu River as of Saturday, March 9 (China Daily)

March 11

  • Count of dead pigs in rivers near Shanghai reaches nearly 3,000 (Business Insider).
  • Laboratory tests find porcine circovirus (PCV) in one water sample from Huangpu River (Xinhua News)

March 13

  • Officials say the number of pig carcasses in Huangpu River has risen to 6,000 (BBC).

March 14

  • Workers continued to haul dead hogs from a river in the Shanghai suburbs Thursday, where the pig body count now exceeds 6,600, according to the municipal government (USA Today).
  • Farm in Zhejiang province confesses to dumping pig carcasses into river (Bloomberg)

March 20

  • The number of dead pigs discovered in Chinese rivers around Shanghai has risen to almost 14,000 (BBC).

March 22

  • 50 pigs wash up onshore in Changsha, Hunan province; ~1,000 dead ducks are also discovered (NTDon China via YouTube)
  • Number of dead pigs found in Shanghai river rises to 16,000 (Independent)

March 25

  • China pulls 1,000 dead ducks from Sichuan river (BBC).
  • Government officials say that 1,000+ rotten duck carcasses pose no threat to human and livestock along river banks (Xinhua News).

March 26

  • Dumping of thousands of dead pigs linked with Chinese crackdown on pork black market (Business Insider)
  • More than 1,000 dead ducks, in 60 woven plastic bags, are found in Sichuan province (China Daily, Time).

March 31

  • The government's National Health and Family Planning Commission said over the weekend that two men, aged 87 and 27, died in Shanghai in early March after being infected with H7N9 avian influenza (AFP).

April 1

  • Widespread reporting about two human deaths and one severe casualty of a "lesser-known bird flu virus" (USA Today, AP).
  • Dr. Michael O'Leary, World Health Organization, says that there is no evidence to show that a type of bird flu which has killed two Chinese men can be transmitted between people (Reuters).

April 2

  • Shanghai Animal Disease Prevention and Control Center tested 34 samples of pig carcasses pulled from Huangpu River and found no flu viruses (Shanghai Daily).


China Photos/Getty Images


After Mandela

There will never be another Nelson Mandela, but maybe that’s just what South Africa needs to save itself from ruin.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Late on Wednesday night, March 27, former South African president Nelson Mandela was admitted to an undisclosed hospital for a recurring lung infection. This is the third time Mandela has been hospitalized in recent months. He spent a weekend in hospital in early March for what the government described as a "check-up," and most of December in hospital, where he was treated for a lung infection and had his gallstones removed. The last time Mandela was seen in public was almost three years ago, at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup, in Johannesburg. But that doesn't mean that he's not still everywhere.

Take his "appearance" at the kickoff this January of the 29th African Cup of Nations, an intercontinental soccer tournament held every two years. The elaborate opening ceremony, celebrating African culture, was a feast of entertainment, music, and dancing; at one point, an enormous Mandela puppet took to the stage. Dressed in the former president's trademark loose, patterned shirt, the puppet swaggered, tottered, jilted, and jived. The audience applauded, for the puppet was instantly identifiable, instantly empathic, instantly adored. Everything else on the stage -- and there was much else, including hundreds of dancers in colorful traditional dress -- could well have been invisible. Yet there was something perfectly ironic about the puppet: in its  enormousness and vitality, it was somehow a better stand-in than Mandela himself, whose age and condition no longer allows him to take the stage.

The ailing former president has been squarely on South Africa's mind the last few months. At 94, he is frail and fading fast. Housebound and bedridden in his Johannesburg estate, he is rumored to be senile; some claim he no longer speaks at all. One especially devastating newspaper report, quoting his former wife, said that his "sparkle was fading."

Each time Mandela is admitted to hospital, a wall of silence goes up between Mandela's spokespeople and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, on the one side, and local and international media, on the other. The official ANC line is always the same: Mandela is "in good health," he is "stable," his medical examinations are "routine" -- nothing to see here, folks, move along. The unofficial line is decidedly different and, by all reasonable accounts, much closer to the truth.

There's also a striking gulf between the local and international media in their reports on Mandela's health. The foreign press are more beatific -- they exhaust transcendental superlatives in attempting to describe the elderly statesman -- but also more ruthless and fatalistic. They polish the halo, or they rehearse the deathbed scene, but, for the most part, they don't seem terribly interested in any middle ground. Each time Mandela takes ill, they wonder if this hospital stay will be the hospital stay, if the unthinkable is about to happen, if the big story is here.

South African reporters are generally shrewder and tougher, indifferent to hyperbole and reflexively critical of the party line. They do a better job of portraying Mandela as an actual human being. But they have also been disciplined into deference by a government that curbs the media, threatens its freedoms, and queries its patriotism.

The ANC has been shameless in exploiting apartheid-era security laws -- such as prohibiting anyone from providing "any information relating to the security measures applicable at or in respect of any" property designated a National Key Point -- to restrict press coverage of Mandela. This extends to the current president, Jacob Zuma, whose controversially funded homestead has itself conveniently been designated a National Key Point. For the ANC, all apartheid-era laws are understandably abhorrent -- except when they can be used to enhance the party itself, protect its politicians or cover up their crimes, in which case the laws are not only acceptable, but also admirable. As the sociologist Roger Southall has noted, the ANC "blurs the distinction between party and state (and between legality and illegality)."

That the ANC has repeatedly bungled its media response to Mandela's hospitalizations, with a damage-control strategy that would be laughed at by any reputable PR company, is revealing. In December 2011, police removed three CCTV cameras that overlooked the Eastern Cape home where Mandela then lived. The cameras had been placed there by Reuters and the Associated Press, and were to be switched on in the event of Mandela's death. Following a public outcry, authorities condemned the news outlets for their intrusiveness, despite the fact that, according to the outlets, these same authorities had given permission for the installation of the cameras.

Indeed, the morbid Mandela death watch is in full swing. Writing in Britain's Guardian in December 2011, that newspaper's Africa correspondent, David Smith, noted that there "are top-secret works in progress. It would be imprudent to discuss them with rivals, and tasteless to admit their existence in polite company. But one day they will be activated -- the only question is when. These are the 'M-plans,' the euphemism for scenarios drawn up by media organizations preparing to report the death of Mandela." Smith noted that "Major broadcasters have spent years -- and 'fortunes' -- building studios, buying prime locations, pre-booking hotels and transport, hiring local 'fixers,' and signing up pundits."

It's almost a cottage industry. As far back as 1997, the South African journalist Lester Venter published a book entitled When Mandela Goes. Since then, there have been several books with similar titles, the most recent of which is After Mandela, by the Daily Telegraph's former South Africa correspondent, Alec Russell. For decades, people have worried what would happen after Mandela's death; whether the country would fall apart without this stabilizing (and largely mythical) force. In Russell's crisp phrase, Mandela's gift to South Africa was his "reconciliatory wizardry," for not only did he ease South Africa into democracy, but he encouraged unity, forgiveness, and faith in humankind. For journalist Alex Duval Smith, writing in the Independent, Mandela is "our planet's last living legend." For Time's Africa bureau chief, Alex Perry, and millions of others, Mandela is a "kind of secular saint to the world."

It seems that too many ostensibly objective journalists have forgotten George Orwell's dictum (in his 1949 review of a Mahatma Gandhi biography): "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." Mandela himself announced, after his 1990 release from 27 years of imprisonment: "I stand here not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people" ... which is, come to think of it, the kind of thing a prophet would say.

Recovering from a bad case of Mandela Illness Fatigue in December, the Cape Town-based AIDS activist Nathan Geffen wrote on his website that "myth-making about Mandela, the continued suggestions by the ANC that he is infallible and superhuman ... coupled by the failure to critically discuss and debate his lifetime's ideas, actions, successes, and failures, does him a disservice. It reduces his life to feel-good quotes and excuses all kinds of bad behavior done in his name. This dehumanizes Mandela and actually means we fail to learn from his achievements."

Geffen sounds like the only grown-up in a world populated by eternally idealistic and overly excitable adolescents, but more and more South African writers are examining Mandela's legacy from a critical perspective, and many young people have also begun to cast a cold eye on Madiba (the affectionate nickname for Mandela), especially the so-called born-free generation, who have only ever known democracy and lack the older generation's baked-in gratitude and goodwill toward the former president.

The born-frees are disheartened by their country's inequality (which has actually widened since apartheid, and is now one of the worst in the world), its debilitating 71 percent youth unemployment rate, its broken education system, and its lack of adequate housing and healthcare. They are angry at South Africa's staggering crime (the country remains one of the most violent in the world).They are frustrated by being endlessly poor: according to the United Nations Development Program, almost half of all South Africans live below the poverty line. And they feel betrayed by a corrupt ANC elite that appears to aspire only to enrich itself, that promises everything at election time but delivers little. None of this is Mandela's fault, of course, but then nor is it the fault of South Africa's youth. One provocative 2012 born-free blog post was titled, "How Mandela Sold Out Blacks."

The truth is that Mandela never actually governed South Africa as president. From the beginning of his single term, in 1994, he delegated (or was perhaps coerced into delegating) all his decision-making to his deputy, future President Thabo Mbeki. Even then, Mandela was little more than a figurehead, spending much of his time posing for photographs with American celebrities, making seemingly meaningful but frequently vacuous statements, and, later, coaxing President Bill Clinton through his Monica Lewinsky trauma. (Clinton early on understood how to exploit Mandela for the subtlest political purposes. Shamed by the nation for cheating on your wife? Mention you've sought counsel from Mandela, and all will be forgiven.)

Mandela's role was necessary at the time: reassuring both South Africa and the world that the transition from apartheid to democracy had been successfully undertaken, encouraging tourism and international investment, and soothing the psyche of an anxious nation that looked to him as a stable, moral presence. Much was accomplished policy-wise during Mandela's first term, but with little input from the great man himself.

Thus, Mandela often takes credit to this day for policies Mbeki and others engineered (the relatively successful neoliberal economy; the important first steps in redressing poverty and giving homes to the homeless), and occasionally gets blamed for what were, in retrospect, mistakes of Mbeki's making (not taking a firmer stance on Robert Mugabe's increasingly tyrannical rule of Zimbabwe; a frequently confused and self-defeating foreign policy; the widening of the inequality gap).

For activists, Mandela's greatest sin was failing to speak out forcefully about the AIDS epidemic -- which has crippled the country over the last two decades, leading to millions of deaths -- and neglecting to put in place effective policy to both prevent further infection and distribute antiretrovirals to those suffering from the disease. But even here Madiba deserves some leeway. After all, AIDS was the mandate of the then-Health Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of the current president and now chairperson of the African Union Commission. In fact, a costly attempt by Dlamini-Zuma to draw national attention to AIDS was one of the new South Africa's earliest public embarrassments. Besides, it is easy, with hindsight, to talk about the government's mishandling of the HIV time bomb. In the very early years of democracy, before Mbeki unforgivably turned HIV denialism into government policy, AIDS was just one enormous social issue among many.

Mandela certainly had his share of political blunders. The most public may have been his 1993 stance, ahead of the first democratic election the following year, that the voting age be lowered to 14. It was a peculiar proposal for a man who should have known his party stood to win an overwhelming majority of votes anyway, without attempting to gerrymander the youth vote. (Even some ANC militants, who thought that too many concessions had already been granted to the Afrikaners, were mystified by Madiba's suggestion).

Privately, and on rare occasions, people who know Mandela mention moments when the former president was petty, acquisitive, churlish, compromised, even craven. This is not to say that Mandela is not a great man -- he most assuredly is -- but that he remains just that: a man. As South Africa's last apartheid president and Mandela's Nobel Peace Prize co-awardee, F.W. de Klerk (himself no hero) recently said, "He was by no means the avuncular and saintlike figure so widely depicted today."

In his envy and tacit resentment of Mandela, de Klerk has an unlikely companion in Thabo Mbeki, who understood that, no matter how able a politician he was (and the young Mbeki was an extraordinarily accomplished lobbyist and tactician), he would never live up to Mandela's legacy.

Even before he became president, Mbeki humiliated Mandela, both implicitly and overtly, publicly and privately. Poised to become president, Mbeki, in a speech at the ANC party conference in 1997, addressed the question everyone was asking: how he intended to step into Madiba's massive shoes.

"I will never, ever be seen dead in your shoes," he said, speaking directly to Mandela, "because you wear such ugly shoes." It was a joke, but it also wasn't. Mbeki later mocked Mandela's "silly" shirts. Once president, he even refused to take Madiba's telephone calls. For his part, Mandela suspected that his successor had planted listening devices in his home -- not an unreasonable assumption, given Mbeki's well known paranoia.

The truth is, Mandela set an unreasonably high bar for any South African politician. Incapable of being better than Mandela, his successors as president seemed content to be worse. Mbeki, who was prone to quoting from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Langston Hughes, should have read more Freud. Mandela's successor became increasingly autocratic, alienated, and obsessive -- and was eventually ousted by his party as he attempted to close in on an unconstitutional third term. 

The current president, Jacob Zuma, with 783 charges of racketeering, fraud, and corruption against him, makes Lance Armstrong look like a stand-up guy. He has made tacit threats to South Africa's Constitution, to its media, and to its judiciary. He recently spent $28 million of taxpayer money on a luxurious homestead for himself and his large family. The Guardian's former Africa correspondent Chris McGreal once described Zuma as being "almost shorn of ideology." But it has now become clear what Zuma's ideology is -- it is the philosophy of self-enrichment.

Despite the emergence of a new political party in February, there is still no party that has a broad enough appeal to the majority of black South Africans to be a viable threat to the ANC. For better or worse, the party of Nelson Mandela will be the dominant party of South Africa for the foreseeable future.

And while Mandela himself may be fading from public view, the Mandela industry continues unabated. This is the franchised, fetishized, minted, molded, mass-produced, and endlessly exploited "Mandela" -- one that bears no relation to the actual human being. This is the world's Mandela, commodified in countless iterations: part Che Guevara, part Mickey Mouse.

Madiba's image adorns everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs to South Africa's recently released new banknotes. There are multiple Mandela clothing lines. There is a Mandela gold coin collection marketed to wealthy South African expatriates (those who love the country enough to brag about it, but not enough to make their home there). Curio shops in touristy areas sell Mandela memorabilia, with signs advising foreigners to "Take a Part of Africa Home With You" -- never mind that it's probably made in China.

The hagiography has long been internationalized. The Hollywood adaptation of The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela's bestselling autobiography (ghostwritten by Richard Stengel, now managing editor of Time) is scheduled for release this year. Idris Elba, the British actor of Ghanian and Sierra Leonian heritage, best known for his role on HBO's The Wire, will play Mandela in the film. Some black South African actors expressed outrage at the casting. "Mandela has already been portrayed by Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, and Sidney Poitier," an actor friend said to me recently. "When is an actual South African going to play the world's most famous South African?" And now, of course, there's a reality show. On February 10, NBC's Cozi TV channel launched Being Mandela, featuring three of Mandela's granddaughters, who are evidently attempting to keep up with the Kardashians.

Meanwhile, a letter leaked to the press last July revealed a rift between the ANC and its most famous family. In the letter, Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, complained that, "No one has cared to establish how we are doing as a family. It is quite clear that we do not matter at all, we only do when we have to be used for some agenda." That's rich, considering Madikizela-Mandela was herself was one of the earliest exploiters of the Mandela name, selling soil and other knick knacks from her husband's Soweto property to tourists for exorbitant prices.

Still, Madikizela-Mandela has a point. In today's South Africa, Madiba is little more than a puppet tossed about between the ANC (which uses his name to rally its base or remind supporters of its glory years), opposition parties (which brandish his name as a weapon), or by the international media (which mentions Mandela as a shorthand to point out how the country has failed to live up to its ideals -- nevermind that they were impossible, anyway).

Perhaps Mandela's death will occasion a compassionate assessment of where South Africa is as a country right now, where it should be, and how to get there. The hope in a post-Mandela South Africa is that younger leaders can find their voice anew, liberate the political parties from the sins of self-enrichment that have robbed this country of moral authority, fight once more for the rights of the poor majority, and deliver to South Africa a vigorous democracy once again. It's sad that it might take the passing of Madiba for that to be possible.

LEON NEAL/Getty Images