The African National Congress probably couldn’t care less about the chatter that Nelson Mandela is now a medical zombie, alive but not living.

It is widely speculated on social networks that the 95-year-old Madiba will remain in intensive care electronic limbo until his passing can be unveiled to the maximum benefit of the ANC in the run-up to next year’s general election.

For after all, if such speculation is vile calumny, the ANC will point to it as merely another example of the paranoia that in 1994 had some local whiteys stocking up on tinned food and in 2013 has them predicting white genocide when Mandela dies. And in the unlikely event that it is true, anyone who matters would probably agree that Mandela, were he compos mentis, would acquiesce in such a last act of oblation. The great man sacrificed the best years of his life for the cause, why would he not gladly surrender the few, final painful grains?

These latest rumours are outlandish but not unprecedented. From the first day of Mandela’s hospitalisation in the early hours of June 8 with a serious lung infection, it has been difficult to separate fact from fiction.

It’s been a case of spin doctors rather than medical doctors. Instead of daily detailed medical bulletins, the enormous public interest in the health of the world’s secular saint has had to make do with irregular, anodyne updates from Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj.

With hordes of journalists camped outside the hospital for the past 11 weeks and struggling to fill regular crossings to ‘our reporter on the spot’, it was inevitable that the scantily available facts would be laced with speculation. At various times Mandela was said to have staged a miraculous recovery and was supposedly bantering with staff and visitors; had died – ‘official announcement imminent, say reliable sources’; or was being kept alive long enough to not have his death overshadow President Barack Obama’s state visit.

Maharaj at one stage rebuked the media and the public for all such ‘unhelpful and hurtful’ rumours. Any possible corrective effect of these stern words was negated just days later by Maharaj’s admission that at least one of those rumours was correct – the ambulance taking Mandela to hospital two weeks earlier had indeed broken down, leaving its critically ill patient stranded at the side of the road, waiting for a replacement vehicle.

While government has been secretive and evasive, the fractious Mandela clan has paraded in public, without the faintest semblance of decorum, its tawdry in-fighting. Nevertheless, they unabashedly keep urging the exact same media to whom they were leaking information, to ‘respect’ Madiba.

For example, his eldest daughter Makaziwa Mandela has lambasted the ‘crass’ media and accused the ‘racist’ foreign press of insensitivity to cultural boundaries. If they ‘really cared’ about Mandela, it was not necessary that ‘everything of his has to be out there in the public.’

This self-righteousness was rather poorly timed. Days later the squabbling Mandela heirs, including Makaziwa, were releasing to the ‘racist’ and ‘crass’ media all the gory details of the secret exhumation by his estranged grandson Mandla Mandela, of three of Madiba’s deceased children .

Then Makaziwa and 15 other relatives brought an urgent court application against Mandla in which they asserted that Madiba was in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ and that the physicians had recommended switching off the life support machines. This was speedily repudiated by the Presidency, but it refused to explain further out of ‘respect’ for Mandela’s privacy.

In the absence of regular bulletins from credible medical doctors – not lay assessments delivered en passant by a newly resurgent ex-wife, Winnie, who is clearly basking in her return to the media spotlight – rumours, whispers and innuendo will dominate.

Respect for Mandela does not mean pandering to a dysfunctional extended family. The Presidency should ask itself how Mandela would want the matter handled. If it is uncertain about the answer, and it shouldn’t be given Mandela’s humility and openness while in office, it could simply ask Graca Machel.

She is, after all, his actual wife and immediate heir. She also appears to be the only one in the inner circle who really understands what the words ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ mean.


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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