National

Another Mandela vigil, minus hysteria

Phillip De Wet

In January 2011 there were candlelit vigils, multiple and viral rumours of death, preparations by the far right and recriminations all around.

Nelson Mandela. (AFP)

But as Nelson Mandela spent a sixth day in 1 Military Hospital outside Pretoria on Thursday – double the length of time he spent in Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg early last year – there was little sign of a similar level of panic around the health of the former president.

Instead of the large and somewhat frantic group of journalists who had gathered at Milpark, South Africa's main military hospital this week featured a desultory media contingent complaining, alternately, about rain and heat. And instead of accusations of invasion of privacy and calls to leave the Mandela family alone, media consumers this week mostly complained that stories on Mandela's condition were boring. Although get-well wishes streamed in from far and wide, the tone was distinctly different from that in 2011.

The difference seemed to lie in the handling of communication on Mandela's health. In early 2011 the Nelson Mandela Foundation initially denied he would be hospitalised, no official sources would at first  confirm his hospitalisation – even though it had been widely reported – and 31 hours elapsed between that confirmation and any official release of information on his condition.

After Mandela was discharged, the presidency vowed to take control of communication around any future health scares. This week it broke the news of Mandela's hospitalisation, announced that he had a lung infection and managed to convey the impression that the revered statesman did not face anything life-threatening.

The difference in the result was striking. Across the busy Voortrekker Road in front of 1 Military Hospital, games continued normally on the civil-service golf course, except for the unusually long tee-off times at the 18th hole as players stopped for impromptu cellphone-camera shots. They were not of the rather ugly buildings of 1 Military Hospital, but of the journalists' cars and satellite vans on the freshly mown verge along the golf course boundary fence, a spot that offered a decent view of the hospital entrance without raising the ire of military police.

With the privacy curtain around Mandela holding and official statements as the sole trusted source of new information, the press pack did what it always does during such stakeouts: shared rumours and jokes. These were not very good rumours or very funny jokes; instead, constructing the image of an elderly Mandela using tied-together bed sheets to escape through a hospital window and hoof it past the Voortrekker Monument and into the city offered better entertainment than watching the squeaky ice-cream bicycle pass by yet again.

The golfers were not keen to talk, but the grounds staff shared their concerns about their prospects of promotion, the likely outcome of the ANC's Mangaung conference and how to further their studies. On Mandela there were mostly shrugged shoulders: "He'll come out or he won't. If he doesn't, we'll be sad."


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