As Mandela declines, South Africa prepare

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Last updated Tuesday, Jun. 11 2013, 7:10 PM EDT
Four days after Nelson Mandela was rushed to hospital for a recurring lung infection, South Africa’s government is sticking relentlessly to two official words for his condition: “serious” and “stable.”

President Jacob Zuma repeated the script Tuesday night with only tiny variations, telling the nation on state television that the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero is in “very serious” condition but has “stabilized.” He refused to give any further medical details. The government will not even confirm the hospital where Mr. Mandela is being treated, although journalists have sniffed it out.

Yet while the official script is terse and vague, there is a widening gulf between the government’s version and the gloomier independent reports filtering out of the Pretoria hospital where Mr. Mandela is in intensive care. It suggests that the attempt at secrecy is unlikely to keep the lid on the grim reality of his deteriorating health.

The government appears to be concealing a fight to save Mr. Mandela’s life. A report by CBS News, citing an unnamed source, said Mr. Mandela was in a medical “crisis” and had to be resuscitated by a medical team at his home last Friday night, shortly before he was rushed to hospital at about 1:30 a.m.

The report said Mr. Mandela’s liver and kidney functions are impaired, working at only 50 per cent of their normal level. It said he had also been treated for a bleeding ulcer.

The decline in Mr. Mandela’s health has been indirectly confirmed by the steady stream of family members visiting him at the Pretoria hospital and holding vigil at his bedside.

His wife, Graca Machel, cancelled a trip to London and has remained with him since Friday. His daughter Zenani, the South African ambassador to Argentina, has flown home to be with him. Other children and grandchildren have been visiting him all week, along with his ex-wife, Winnie.

Mr. Zuma’s office has been widely criticized for its refusal to disclose more than perfunctory details on the health of Mr. Mandela, who has been admitted to hospital four times since December. In one case last year, the president’s office misled South Africans about the hospital where Mr. Mandela was being treated.

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Zuma and other members of his ruling African National Congress visited Mr. Mandela at his home in a Johannesburg suburb, and Mr. Zuma later claimed cheerfully that the former president was “up and about” and “looking very good.” In fact, video images from the visit showed Mr. Mandela obviously frail, frozen-faced, unable to smile, and almost unresponsive. It was the only video of Mr. Mandela to be released in the past 10 months.

Mr. Mandela’s fragile health is unsurprising for a man of his age, especially since he had suffered tuberculosis during his 27 years of imprisonment during the apartheid era. And there are growing signs that South Africans are reconciled to his possible imminent death. In some ways, his latest hospital admission has been a bigger story globally than it has in South Africa, where people have become accustomed to his health problems over the years. Although he is beloved by almost the entire country, many people now say they are prepared to hear the worst.

In an example of South Africa’s gradual acceptance of Mr. Mandela’s declining health, one of his former comrades has called on the Mandela family to “release” the former president. “The family must release him so that God may have his own way,” said Andrew Mlangeni, a former ANC activist who endured years of imprisonment with Mr. Mandela on Robben Island.

“Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow,” he told a South African newspaper. “We will say, ‘Thank you, God, you have given us this man, and we will release him too.’ ”

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, Canada

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