‘Everyone wants a piece of the president’

One of the questions most frequently asked of President Nelson Mandela at the Park Lane Clinic last week was whether he was scaling down his activities. To find out, Rehana Rossouw peeked at his diary for this week

This is what President Nelson Mandela’s diary looks like this week. There are early morning dashes to airports, a meeting with a sports star, that very important meeting in KwaZulu- Natal and plenty of time for rest in between affairs of state.

As far as possible, most of Mandela’s afternoons and every Friday are kept free. This Friday though, the imbizo in KwaZulu- Natal is of critical importance, so his day is full.

Three days a week are devoted to African National Congress business — Mondays, which he spends at Shell House, and Saturdays and Sundays, when he prefers to stay at his Houghton home.

By late last year, Mandela began complaining that his schedule was so hectic that he seldom had time to read the newspapers and important state documents. He wanted time out to do this so badly that he remarked that he missed the days on Robben Island, where he could spend time reflecting on issues and penning his responses. So he suggested free time in the afternoon, whenever possible.

“The decision to leave his afternoon free had nothing to do with doctors,” stressed presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana.

Mandela’s diary is definitely not as hectic as it was this time last year, said Mankahlana. However, the president’s office could not produce last year’s diary for comparison as it was in Pretoria and his staffers were all in Cape Town.

“Largely, this situation has evolved over a period of time, rather than because of a specific instruction. The staff in the president’s office have now all acquainted themselves with the fact that his programme has to be streamlined.

“If six ministers want to see him on a particular day, perhaps three will be re- routed to the deputy president. Instead of doing an interview once a day, we arrange one a week with four journalists present.”

Mankahlana said Mandela’s programme was currently “manageable and reasonable”, although demands for his time keep rising. “We expect that as long as he is alive, people will want a slice of his time. He is popular, he has strong appeal, and everyone wants him at their event.”

More often that not though, Mandela just isn’t available to judge a fashion show or snip a ribbon and, when the staff at the presidency believe an event needs a representative, other Ministers are co-opted into service to stand in for the president.

“Some people don’t like it when they invite Mandela and someone else arrives to represent him. It’s not that they want the president of South Africa to attend, they want Nelson Mandela himself.”

What most people don’t realise is that Mandela’s diary is thematic. They would stand a better chance of grabbing his attention if their request for his time found symmetry with Mandela’s causes.

In October and November last year, for instance, his diary was cleared of matters of state while he concentrated on winning support for the local government elections.

Since January, he has had one overriding concern — peace in KwaZulu-Natal. Mandela’s staff have had to shape his programme and make it fit into the president’s overall plan.

Almost all his speeches this year have preached peace, reconciliation, patriotism and nation building. He has consulted often with King Goodwill Zwelithini, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and ANC KwaZulu-Natal leader Jacob Zuma. He has been following Magnus Malan’s trial closely.

On Tuesday he had lunch with Buthelezi to iron out arrangements for the imbizo on Friday. “After Friday’s imbizo, he will start gearing up for the local government elections in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal,” Mankahlana said.

“With this much foresight, we are able to add to the president’s current project without overworking him. There’s no Chinese wall though, we can always pitch the programme according to what’s high on the agenda.”

Most of the diary is drafted by a committee consisting of cabinet secretary Jakes Gerwel, presidential parliamentary councillor Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s secretary Mary Mxabane and his head of communication Joel Netshitenzhe.

State visits to South Africa and abroad are, naturally, organised months in advance. These are also streamlined, taking into account which countries are most important to visit and which visits can be passed on to the deputy presidents.

The diary committee meets regularly to consider requests for Mandela’s time. Obviously, they cannot allocate every minute detail, anticipate every crisis or cater for their boss’s whims. When he wants to meet a sports star, like Springbok swimmer Penny Heyns this week, she’s slotted in. If he wants a photo opportunity with her after the meeting, it’s likewise arranged.

“We can plan almost a year in advance for overseas trips, but visits to South Africa come sometimes with as little as a week’s notice,” said Kathrada. “So the diary changes all the time.”

“We try to take into consideration rest periods for him, but that’s also not easy. For instance, when he goes to Transkei to rest, we go out of our way not to disturb him and people land there without previous notice demanding to see him.

“While we try to cut down the programme as much as possible, it’s difficult, everybody wants a piece of the president.”

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