LIVE BY DESIGN | Klaas de Jonge born 5 September 1937 will die on 5 May 2023

Zoleka Mandela is planning her last days, accepting that cancer brings her passing closer – date uncertain.

In 2012 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2016 it resurfaced, and again her treatment was successful. This year, the third occurrence, her cancer metastasized, spreading to her spinal cord, hip area, liver and lungs and causing bone fractures. Death will now come sooner rather than later.

Kaya FM’s Phemelo Motene interviewed Zoleka on how she is handling this period of her life, complimenting her on how well she looks. Zoleka laughed and responded, “It’s the makeup,” and I get that, the wish to try to look good.

My late husband, Joe Slovo asked me to help him apply fake tan when he was dying. I also get that last days can be hugely challenging; energy levels may be inconsistent, as well as the emotional appetite to deal with hard stuff.

Some days Zoleka says she goes “off-grid.” On this interview day, she sounds upbeat, “I’m trying to figure out how to turn a negative situation into a positive one that others can learn from. I’m blessed enough to be in a position to be in my planning days. I have conversations with my loved ones, my lawyer, my therapist, and my siblings (on) what will happen on the days leading to my passing, (and) what happens after I pass away.”

She is completing a Personal Care Plan – some people call this document a Living Will.

“I feel empowered to be involved in decisions that affect me and my kids. I’ve been put in a place where I am able to actually have a say in what I want to happen.” Zoleka’s planning includes what will happen to her book, her memorabilia, her heirlooms, even media releases. She spoke of her younger children as being in a good space, thriving, her wanting the best for them but also her concern. “I don’t know how the deterioration of my health will affect them.”

That same concern preoccupied my friend Ilundi. Aged 39, she was about die (also of breast cancer that metastasised), leaving behind children aged 4, 8 and 21. She had read that her brain could be affected, and she might hallucinate.

She did not want her children to witness this. She reconsidered the option of dying at home and explored alternatives. She, fortunately, lived in Holland. She found a hospice for her final days, which provided guest rooms for family and friends to stay over.

She made a provisional booking to go there if and when her tests confirmed that she was no longer responding to treatment. Her planning also included:

  • Innumerable conversations with family, friends, doctors, and funeral officiant.
  • Choosing the graveyard (edge of forest near the sea), selecting her burial plot.
  • Taking part in a family photo shoot.
  • A romantic weekend away with her beloved husband.
  • Shopping – helping her younger daughter choose her own funeral outfit.
  • Choosing the Tanzanian capulanas as her own attire for burial.
  • Ordering delivery of a pine coffin to the house after her death for decoration by family and close friends.
  • Planning the service – not only the programme, but also a cushions-on-the-floor area, where young children could sit.

This week, I’ve been privileged to be part of a very different kind of farewell. Klaas de Jonge is the Dutch anti-apartheid movement activist who was arrested for uMkhonto we Sizwe activities. He escaped and spent two years in the Dutch embassy in Pretoria before his repatriation.

Klaas is now 85, and like Zoleka and Ilundi, his body has succumbed to cancer. He, too, speaks of being in a lot of pain. He lives in Holland, where the right to human dignity includes the right to assisted death.

He plans to die on 5 May; until then, he is taking time to connect with friends. On the Zoom call, scheduled for 90 minutes, Klaas spoke, “I have this choice. I will be with a few people. I will drink the liquid, and in half an hour, I will be gone. In the meantime, I am here; I am with you. You are friends that I consider as family. (Usually) when someone dies, when you go to the funeral, you listen to everything nice that is said about the person.

“But I am hearing everything before I die. (Laughter). I feel sad, but I am glad to do it this way. I can decide for myself.” Klaas de Jonge 5 September 1937 – 5 May 2023.

Our Constitution is one of our proudest national possessions. It is internationally acclaimed as one of the most progressive in the world. The translation of our Constitution into practical realities is what we grapple with as a nation.

Section 10 of our Constitution is about “Human Dignity. Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have that dignity respected and protected.” I submit that, logically, that should extend to having a right to choose how we die and the provision of means to legally implement that choice.

Given a chance, how would you spend your last days, and in certain circumstances, would you proactively bring them to a close by choosing your departure date?

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