The national waiting room

While the Mandela family and ANC leaders visited Milpark on Thursday, the rest of the country huddled in the 'national waiting room'.

When someone we love is gravely ill we gather, family and friends, as close to their bedside as we can get, avid for proximity and for information.

So while the Mandela family and African National Congress (ANC) leaders visited Milpark on Thursday, the rest of the country huddled as if in a national waiting room, anxiously parsing fragmentary and confusing news reports for information.

What South Africans feel for Madiba is not simply affection or respect. Even love may not be a strong enough word. His presence is part of the structure of our national being. We worry that we may not be quite ourselves without him.

And so, when we hear he is in hospital, that his family is gathering, and that he is being attended to by a lung specialist, we are frightened.

At the same time, we do not want to anticipate the worst. The rumour of Madiba’s death that swept across the social networking site Twitter a fortnight ago was an unpleasant reminder of what can happen when our need to know and our technical capacity to spread unreliable reports at electron speed come together.

Journalists—particularly print journalists—are in a bind at a time like this. We know that our readers are desperate for information and that the media are the only channel most of you have through which to receive it. We absolutely cannot afford to make any mistakes, however, and we do not want to feed the rumour mill.

We urgently want to be able to tell you what we know, but in the 24 long hours between Wednesday’s terse statement saying he was undergoing “routine tests” and the Mail & Guardian‘s print deadline there was no official communication on the subject whatsoever.

That is perhaps understandable: Balancing family concerns, government and ANC protocol, as well as the worries of the nation is an exceptionally complex task.

But the upshot is that we really only have a fragmentary, confused picture of the state of Madiba’s health. We have spoken to dozens of people who may be, or claim to be, in a position to know more, and we still feel that what we can say with any confidence is limited.

Certainly Nelson Mandela is ill enough to require hospitalisation and constant medical support. Given his age, we have little option but to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

At the time of going to press it seemed a more detailed, official account of his condition would be made public within hours. We will try to bring you those details via our website as soon as we have them.

The waiting room is a tense place—and an uncomfortable one. Words run out, everyone is tired, the future hangs over us, but we are all here together, right where Madiba would want us.

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