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Sunday Times STLive By MOIPONE MALEFANE, 2011-01-30

'Turf war' led to Madiba news blackout

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe
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Bickering between the Department of Defence and the Nelson Mandela Foundation was behind the two-day information blackout on the medical condition of the former president.

The communications shutdown, especially on the second day of Mandela's stay at the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, led to wild speculation about the struggle icon's health.

It was only after the intervention of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's office late on Thursday that information began to flow.

Addressing reporters at the hospital on Friday, Motlanthe admitted that communications could have been better handled.

The Sunday Times has established that government communicators were caught off-guard on Wednesday when Mandela was hospitalised.

There had been no prior communication from, or joint planning, with the foundation.

A senior official from the Government Communication and Information System said: "This thing has hurt the image of government and its ability to communicate.

"We were not told on time that he was going to be admitted, so we did not prepare for a prolonged stay in hospital.

"The foundation kept the information to itself, we found out what was happening to him through the media.

"We didn't get the information beforehand; we got it as his stay was ongoing.

"This situation was more than just a nightmare," said the official, who preferred not to be named.

Several insiders said the problem began on Wednesday when the Minister of Defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, whose department is responsible for the health of presidents and their predecessors, wanted to announce Mandela's hospitalisation.

But the foundation, apparently acting at the behest of Mandela family members, shot down the idea and insisted it had the final say on the matter.

It is understood that CEO Achmat Dangor telephoned the organisation's trustees and told them that only the Nelson Mandela Foundation would inform the public about the Nobel prize winner.

However, Sello Hatang, a spokesman for the foundation, said Dangor's phone call wasn't unusual, as the CEO consulted the trustees regularly.

After Dangor's call, the foundation issued a statement, consisting of a single sentence, saying that Mandela had been admitted for a routine check-up.

Then Mandela spent a second night in hospital and - despite local and foreign media demanding more answers as a result - the foundation and government communicators remained silent.

President Jacob Zuma issued a short statement from Davos, in Switzerland, on Thursday, calling for calm, but this did nothing to still the speculation.

By late Thursday, it had become clear that a new strategy was needed.

Motlanthe, who is acting president while Zuma is overseas, met Mandela's doctors and then instructed his office and the Department of Defence to take over communications from the foundation.

The SA National Defence Force was also instructed to stop politicians and other well-wishers from visiting the hospital - limiting his callers to Mandela's immediate family and his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The foundation's Hatang admitted that "mistakes were made" in informing the public about Mandela this week.

"We have been working with other stakeholders but the acting president managed to put out what was not in the public (domain). Motlanthe said we have made mistakes ... going forward we will correct those mistakes."

However, Hatang denied there was any antagonism between the Department of Defence and the foundation.

"We released a statement after a stakeholder asked the foundation to do so. Therefore, we cannot be held accountable for anything.

"The deputy president has clarified the protocol to be followed in communicating on Madiba after consultation, and we respect that," he said.