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'Who is my Mandela?' South Africans consider icon's place in a changing world

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

Updated at 6:58 a.m. ET: JOHANNESBURG, South Africa —  As millions of South Africans reflect on how Nelson Mandela led them away from segregation, many others see the former president as a figure firmly rooted in the past with limited impact on their future.

"For my generation, the heroes are not political icons, as incredible as they are," said Gugu Ximiya as he boarded a minibus packed with Sowetans travelling to work in the rich, white neighborhoods in the country’s largest city. "We have our own problems and the political leaders do nothing.


"My icons are the sports stars, movie stars, people who make money. To me, they’re the people who have really made it," the 23-year-old security guard when he was asked about the former president. Mandela, 94, was admitted to a hospital in Pretoria on Saturday to receive treatment for a lung infection.

Mandela suffers recurrence of lung infection

Mandela is often described as "the father" for leading South Africa out of apartheid without a violent transition. His country is very young.

From prisoner to liberator, Nelson Mandela's fight for equality in South Africa serves as a shining example of justice and peace. Here's a look at the pivotal moments in the life of South Africa's first black president.

Democratic South Africa, the so-called Rainbow Nation, is now 18 years old. Most of its people were children or not even born when Mandela was released from prison in 1990.  A whole generation of people have been "born free" since racial segregation ended with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

South Africa enters adulthood as 'born frees' come of age

Now, almost 60 percent of South Africans are under 35 years old — 29 percent are younger that 15, according to the country’s most recent census.

For those who remember the euphoria of their first taste of freedom in 1994, Mandela often represents hope that has not been replicated since. The generation that does not remember that great moment often cannot feel the same closeness to Mandela. 

"I wasn’t there. My parents tell me all about it, and I get it. But who is my Mandela? What he did is great, but it is fading from our memory," Ximiya said.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated for a recurring lung infection. South African authorities gave few details about his illness, but have now said the 94-year-old is responding well to treatment. NBC's Rohit Kachroo reports.

For others, Mandela's illness has brought a sense of unity to a country that remains often bitterly divided by race and economics. As the census shows, the income of white households is six times higher than black ones. Protests about basic services have become an almost daily occurrence in urban areas as the government struggles to fix a broken education system and address chronic unemployment and poverty.

In Soweto, an almost exclusively black township described as "the heartbeat of the nation," many people said they were alarmed by news of Mandela’s admission to hospital. 

Themba Hadebe / AP

Young women walk pass a mural depicting former South African President Nelson Mandela at Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Tuesday.

Close to the house where Mandela once lived, now a museum, Joe Nkosi sells souvenirs celebrating Soweto’s past.

"We all fear the worst, but hope he is OK," the 32-year-old said. "He is just so, so special to every single one of us. If anything happened to him there would be tears everywhere."

'Steered us away from disaster'
Mandela, who became a global symbol of resistance to racism and injustice after spending 27 years in apartheid prisons, represents to the world what is best about South Africa, according to political analyst Mzoxolo Mpolase.

"He has become the embodiment of South Africa’s strengths," he said. "The way he reacted to trouble, how he steered us away from disaster when he came out of prison and throughout his presidency."

Killings of S. Africa farmers a toxic apartheid legacy

"It was a tone of reconciliation and working together," Mpolase said. "His death would lead us to ask whether those ideals can be sustained."

Secretary of State Clinton tells of the important life lessons she has learned through her friendship with Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was released in 1990 and went on to use his unparalleled prestige to push for reconciliation between whites and blacks as the bedrock of the Rainbow Nation.

While people around the world revere Mandela, it is impossible for them to truly understand what he accomplished, said Faith Radebe, a 63-year-old domestic worker.

"People from outside South Africa cannot understand how much he means to us," she said. 

"When I think about Madiba, I think about what these streets were like under apartheid," she said, referring to Mandela by his clan name. "I remember how excited we were when he came out of prison. We knew that the past was over, and that we would be free."

So as Radebe remembers what Mandela accomplished on behalf of his countrymen, political analyst Mpolase worries that his death will signal the end to the idealism that created the modern South Africa.

"His passing would be tantamount to the country losing its very foundations," he said. "A part of the country would die too."

South Africa releases newly-minted bank notes showing the smiling face of former president Nelson Mandela. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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