Watching Mandela, UK royal baby: World awaits news at both ends of cycle of life

Members of the news media gather outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela is undergoing treatment, left, and outside Saint Mary's Hospital in west London, right, where the royal baby is expected to be born. AFP - Getty Images, Getty Images

LONDON - At two hospitals, 5,500 miles apart, reporters from around the world have gathered to watch each end of the cycle of life: birth and death.

Television crews have been parked for weeks outside Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where 94-year-old Nelson Mandela -- the man many view as the greatest living statesman -- is critically ill with a lung infection.

In London, a similar crowd is swelling outside St Mary’s Hospital. Their target? The unborn child of Prince William and his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge -- known to millions simply as Kate -- whose first appearance in the world is expected around July 13.

Which event is bigger: The birth of the future ruler of the United Kingdom, or the death of a global icon? The royal infant will probably not be crowned for more than 60 years, separated from the throne by more than two generations of succession. Longevity is a family trait. And lot can change in six decades.

When the baby is born, church bells are set to peal across the land, $100 million-worth of baby-related business is expected to boost Britain’s economy, and bets are being placed on the child’s name -- Alexandra and George are favorites, according to bookmaker William Hill. 

The passing of South Africa’s first black president, who emerged from 27 years in jail to call for peace and coexistence with his white jailers, steering his country away from the bloodbath, is expected to be met by solemn, appreciative eulogies of love from around the world.

Already, paeans are flowing. “Nelson Mandela showed us that one man's courage can move the world,” said President Barack Obama on his recent visit to South Africa. 

One is being hailed for what he has done, the other admired for what he or she may make of the huge opportunities granted by royal privilege. The contrast also brings to mind the line from Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night," that “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Did Mandela achieve greatness or was greatness thrust upon him? One answer is: both.

When Mandela was arrested for plotting against apartheid and jailed for almost three decades, greatness was thrust upon him because he responded with such grace. But he achieved greatness when he came out of jail, devoted himself to bringing a peaceful end to apartheid and against all expectations, succeeded. 

He was president for only five years, from 1994 to 1999, yet the peace he achieved between the races has been maintained.

The world watches and waits alongside his family, not all of whom appreciate the media attention. As hundreds prayed outside the hospital for her father’s recovery, Makaziwe, Mandela’s eldest daughter, likened the foreign media to “vultures … waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo.” 

It is never a pretty sight when scrums of reporters jostle for camera angles and pester passers-by for comments. And from Pretoria to London, that’s one thing the two stories share.

At St Mary’s Hospital in London, staff and visitors are already asking photographers why they are blocking the sidewalk. One journalist replied: “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till the baby’s born!”

Maybe such undignified scrums are the price of greatness.

Martin Fletcher is a longtime NBC News correspondent and author.