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What will happen to the 'Rainbow Nation' once its icon Mandela dies?

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Discussing what will happen to the country once its iconic leader Nelson Mandela dies has long been a culturally and politically taboo subject in South Africa. Out of respect for the 94-year-old former president, government officials never publicly refer to plans for what happens after his death, and in private, they often use cryptic synonyms to discuss the inevitable.

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

But Mandela’s frequent trips to the hospital – most recently to be treated for pneumonia – have forced the question of “what happens next?” further into the public domain.

Of course, no one knows what democratic South Africa will look like without Mandela.

Some believe the frail freedom fighter is somehow holding the disparate parts of the “Rainbow Nation” together from his sick bed, and fear an outbreak of racial violence once he dies. Others disagree and think the young nation is still struggling – but that it has moved beyond the apartheid-era issues.  

‘It genuinely frightens me’
“I am not a racist, but…” -- It sounds like an ominous opener.

Elaine was about to outline her prediction – an unpopular one – of what will happen when South Africa loses Mandela. She feels the need to declare her belief in racial equality before setting out her fear that South Africa’s delicate social harmony might be torn apart when the “Father of the Nation” is gone.

“I am really scared that the country will explode. There are a lot of people out there who are just holding themselves back until he dies. It genuinely frightens me,” said Elaine, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.  

“I will be mourning like everyone else, but I will be mourning at home. I won’t be leaving my house that day because I’m concerned about what will happen,” she said. “I don’t know what they will do. But I feel that they have a right to be angry.”

“They” are South Africa’s 40 million black people who, a generation after the end of apartheid, are disproportionately enduring its economic legacy. Largely, they remain the “have-nots” of what the World Bank has called the world’s most unequal society.

Rohit Kachroo/ NBC News

Georgina Sefara is a 20-year-old student in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Elaine, a 26-year-old white woman, is certainly one of the “haves.” Born into a rich family, she now works as a well-paid financial advisor in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. “I may be paranoid,” Elaine admitted, “but there are lots of people who think like me.”

A ‘patronizing’ view

Georgina Sefara is a 20-year-old student. A black woman, born after Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, she has never truly known racial segregation and resents the view that violence will erupt after Mandela’s death.

“Many white South Africans think that there will be apartheid in reverse. That’s what they’re afraid of. You hear many whites saying they will move to Australia when that happens.

“But [the violence] will never happen… It’s patronizing and outdated to think that it will.”

“Most of my parents’ generation are still angry,” said Georgina's classmate Carol Phago, an English student from Johannesburg. “Many still hold a grudge,” she said, referring to the former apartheid era.

“But maybe there are different enemies now. People are angry with the government, not with their fellow South Africans.”

Dissatisfaction with government
Rage is certainly building over the government’s inability to improve the lives of the millions of black South Africans who live in impoverished townships.

Nelson Mandela was discharged on Saturday from the hospital where he had been undergoing treatment for pneumonia, South Africa's presidency said in a statement. NBC's Ron Allen reports.

In addition, there is anger over the country’s inability to shake off the title as “the rape capital of the world.” 

According to a 2012 World Health Organization report, more than one in five men reported raping a woman who was not a partner and 14.3 percent of men reported having raped their current or former wife or girlfriend.

The issue of rampant domestic violence in South Africa gained international attention recently with the fatal shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius.

Rohit Kachroo / NBC News

Geoffrey Manulake, is a 32-year-old security guard in Johannesburg, South Africa.

There is frustration with a police force that is faced with constant accusations of corruption and incompetence. The shooting death of 34 striking miners by police officers last August has amplified the recurring claim that the behavior of the state under democracy has become too similar to that of the apartheid government.

It is one reason why security guard Geoffrey Manulake, 32, has rejected a career in the police force. He feels disillusioned with the public institutions of his country and worries about how they will develop in the post-Mandela period.

“Politicians feel the need to satisfy themselves. They just want to line their own pockets,” said Manulake. “I look around at our leaders and feel that we cannot lose this icon. Nelson Mandela is the one who united our country and united the world.”

“But we have come a long way since ’94,” he said, referring to the year Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first multi-racial elections. "People who talk about violence are wrong.”

Related links:

Nelson Mandela is discharged from South Africa hospital

Mandela hospitalized again, South Africa leader asks world to pray for him

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