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South Africans fret about post-Mandela civil strife

Marc Shoul / Panos for NBC News

Father Sebastian Rossouw recalled that before the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela many South Africans were afraid that different communities would settle scores after decades of apartheid rule.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The priest of a Soweto church that became a focal point in the struggle against apartheid has called on President Jacob Zuma's government to vow to uphold Nelson Mandela's vision of tolerance amid fears of social unrest in the event of the icon's death.

Father Sebastian Rossouw, of the Regina Mundi church in the predominantly black residential area, said the government should reassure people that it will remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy.

"If the present government … are true to who [Mandela] is there shouldn’t be a fear of civil war post-Madiba,” said Rossouw, calling Mandela by his clan name.

South Africa has a history of tensions and clashes between different ethnic groups and between whites and blacks. Mandela is seen as a conciliating figure and there are worries that once he’s gone, violence will erupt once again.

Regina Mundi, the largest Catholic church in South Africa, became a gathering place during the apartheid era when Soweto was plagued by clashes between residents and the white police force. Mandela referred to it as “the people’s cathedral” and named Nov. 30 as a national holiday – Regina Mundi Day – in its honor.

Marc Shoul / Panos for NBC News

Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto has hosted luminaries including Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.

It has been visited by peace campaigners and world leaders including Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1998. Michelle Obama came to address the Young African Women Leaders Forum in 2011.

Rossouw recalled the days leading up to the 1994 election -- the first in which the country's majority non-white population was eligible to vote -- when many were afraid that different communities would settle scores after decades of apartheid rule. 

“I remember my mom having stocked up the cupboards with non-perishables because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he added. “I don’t think it’s going to reach those magnitudes now, although it is a concern and needs to be addressed.”

That Mandela’s rise to power did not spark a bloodbath defied many predictions at the time. 

When Mandela was released after 27 years as a political prisoner in 1990, he took his fight for racial equality right to the top, toppling the minority white leadership and becoming the country's first black president. He is revered by many in South Africa for reaching across race and also tribal lines, and some worry that once he’s gone tensions could once again flare up.

"There is no doubt that the Mandela magic has been very important in bringing together an otherwise very divided society and there may be a moment of real concern were he to pass on,” said Lawrence Hamilton, a professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg. 


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

On Thursday, Zuma called on his country to remember Mandela as a revolutionary and political prisoner, and not only for his time as the country’s first black leader. 

“We must not only focus on Madiba the first president of a democratic South Africa who implemented ANC [African National Congress party's] policies of reconciliation and transformation,” he said in a speech in the National Assembly. 

Mandela remained in hospital in Pretoria for a recurring lung infection on Friday. On Thursday, Zuma visited the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

"Madiba's health continues to improve but his condition remains serious. We continue to appeal to people to keep Madiba in their prayers and wish him a speedy recovery," Zuma said in a statement.

On Wednesday, officials reported that Mandela was responding to treatment.

Peter-Paul Ngwenya, a former political prisoner who has worked with Mandela, agreed that the government needed to address fears about South Africa post-Mandela, although he did not believe there was a serious risk of violence. 

“I think we must start preparing ourselves for what some people used to call WAM – What After Mandela,” he said. “Through Mandela the ANC created this wonderful democracy we have. They need to assure as that we will never betray Mandela’s legacy.”