Initial feature published in the Bulletin&Record, Zambia.
Is Nelson Mandela dead? Did he die as early perhaps as June 11 and was then maintained in a “permanent vegetative state” only by means of a life support machine? And if he did effectively die, as now seems possible, within days or weeks of his admission to hospital, why was a ghoulish charade perpetrated for months — and to what end? Whatever ultimately happens, whatever the official explanations, these questions will continue to asked in years to come.
In June and July the front pages of newspapers and the covers of magazines around the world carried photographs of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, perhaps the planet’s best-known individual. From the moment the 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon was rushed to hospital on June 8 with a recurring lung infection, much international media attention focussed on his life and times; television crews jetted in to join the streams of well-wishers that gathered at all hours outside the hospital in Pretoria.
It was admitted that Mandela’s condition was serious and forward thinking impresarios began planning tributes while news editors dusted off long-prepared obituaries, adding the latest news as they waited for the expected medical update. But, more than six months later, there has been no medical update. Instead there have been a series of often contradictory statements by feuding family members and, primarily, by politicians, including President Jacob Zuma.
As the weeks and months went by, squalid squabbling and confusion continued as a small media army watched and waited. For some news organisations such as the BBC, it was an expensive exercise, having a full crew simply waiting for news that never came.
But the media continued to watch and wait because, when Mandela was admitted to hospital, the presidency noted that his condition was “serious but stable”. Then, on June 23, Zuma and the governing ANC party’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, visited Mandela and announced that Mandela’s condition “has deteriorated”.
Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj elaborated, noting: “The condition of former president Nelson Mandela, who is still in hospital in Pretoria, has become critical.” So the media stayed put, with nothing to report about Mandela’s medical condition, but plenty to speculate about as elements of the Mandela family tore into one another.
As reported in Zambia’s Bulletin & Record in August, Mandela’s ambitious grandson, Mandla, had ordered the exhumation of the bodies of three of his grandfather’s children who had died in earlier years and been buried at Mandela’s rural home in Qunu. Aware that Mandela had willed that he be buried “alongside my children” Mandla removed the bodies and reburied them near his own home and recently built tourist complex, 25km away at Mvezo.
It had become a grubby battle, not so much for the legacy, but for the loot; for the estimate R175 million in Mandela’s trust fund, for his homes in Johannesburg and Qunu and for the considerable income his name could continue to generate in future. This sad and sordid family feud ultimately ended up in court and the bodies of the children were once again returned to their graves in Qunu.
But, in the midst of this furore, the new, largely internet based Las Vegas Guardian Express announced on June 26 that Mandela had died. The report was dismissed, both by government and the mainstream media.
Zuma was quick off the mark the following day, issuing a statement that Mandela’s condition had “improved during the course of the night”. Zuma added: “He is much better today than he was when I saw him last night. The medical team continues to do a sterling job.”
A day later, Ace Magashule, premier of the Free State province and a leading member of the ANC, announced that the Mandela Family had visited the hospital and that they had reported that Mandela was “better than any other day. He is fine.” Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, then added that the patient had showed “great improvement”. However, the presidency then issued what became its single, official — and contradictory — line: Mandela’s condition “remains critical, but stable”.
Then, on July 4, court documents emerged that had been filed on June 26 by Makaziwe Mandela and 14 other family members as part of their battle with Mandla Mandela. These noted that doctors treating the anti-apartheid icon had said that he was in a “permanent vegetative state”. The family had been advised to turn off his life support machine. “Rather than prolonging his suffering, the Mandela family is exploring this option as a very real probability,” the court application noted.
As a result, the confusion continued as Zuma called on everyone to celebrate Mandela’s birthday on July 18, by “doing something good for humanity”. And, on July 18, at an official party staged in Pretoria, Zuma announced that he had visited Mandela that morning. “Indeed, I found him really steady and making progress. He was able to smile,” he said.
However, toward the end of July, the presidency stated that Mandela’s condition “remains critical and is at times unstable.” The media army began to decamp. And, on September 1, only a small group of journalists was on hand when an ambulance and escort brought Mandela from Pretoria to his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton where, it was announced, he would continue to receive “intensive care”.
As November dawned and what promises to be a bitterly fought election campaign got fully underway, there was still no news But speculation was rife that the official death and funeral of Mandela would become part of a campaign by the ANC to shore up its flagging support when the elections are staged in April or May next year.
However, if Mandela is, in fact only a switch away from being declared officially dead, it is just as likely that the delay in his passing has as much to do with ongoing family feuding involving funeral plans. But the secrecy and unseemly behaviour, the squabbling and the confusion sown has brought no credit to any of the parties.
The final confusion arose on December 3 when Makaziwe Mandela hailed the example her father continued to set. “The spirit is still very, very strong,” she said, referring to him being “for want of a better word, on his death bed”.