Even in hard times, Madiba took road less travelled

20 December 2012 - 02:06 By Brendan Boyle
Brendan Boyle
Brendan Boyle
Image: The Dispatch

SOMEWHERE, probably in Pretoria, Nelson Mandela is lying in a hospital bed being treated for a lung infection and the after-effects of hi-tech surgery to remove gallstones.

That is about as much as we know and, according to Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj, as much as we deserve to know.

Given his age and the immense affection felt for him around the world, there is global interest in Madiba's progress. People want to know what his ailment is and how he is doing.

But the government's grudging response has been to say little.

Ever since the founding president of our democratic South Africa withdrew from public life a variety of people and institutions have sought to protect him from the outside world.

Other than the three families that surround him, we have had the Nelson Mandela Foundation, The Presidency and the Defence Department managing the release of information about him.

I am sure that most of the decisions are taken in what those around him believe are his best interests. But I am less sure that it is what he would have wished.

Maharaj, whose updates since Mandela was admitted to hospital about two weeks ago are an exercise in minimalism, urged the public this week to stop speculating on social media.

"I would urge you that, unless we provide an update or new information . we should proceed in the knowledge that Madiba's health is improving," he said.

Last week, when it appeared that Mandela might have been moved secretly from one Pretoria hospital to another, Maharaj fervently argued that the public had no right to know his whereabouts.

"President Mandela is being treated at a Pretoria hospital . We refrained from disclosing the hospital to ensure privacy and to allow doctors to do their work of caring for Madiba without interruptions or undue pressure," he said.

Maharaj has been around the block enough times to know that the best antidote to speculation is information. Vague statements don't cut it.

Madiba sought to set a tone of openness and transparency in his interactions with the public and the press.

That did not always go down well with his colleagues but it was his choice. And that, in this twilight phase of his life, is the precedent his guardians should honour.

In May 1991, Mandela's then wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was sentenced to six years in prison for her role in the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei, who was later found dead. The sentence was, on review, reduced to a fine.

I had to drive from Cape Town to the Goudini Spa, near Rawsonville, where Mandela was attending a conference, to get his reaction to the prison sentence.

Followed by his ANC guards, he walked over to where I waited as soon as he came out for a break. His face darkened when I gave him the news, which he had not heard, and the guards began roughly to haul me away.

But he stopped them. I don't recall his exact words but the message was that my visit was legitimate. After he took a moment to gather his thoughts, he told me how sad he was but that the judgment would have to be respected.

He had opportunities to crack down on the flow of information, but chose to push the envelope - even when his security and cabinet colleagues tried to stop him.

He made visiting heads of state, including a reluctant Robert Mugabe, cross the Tuynhuys garden in Cape Town to shake hands with pedestrians.

He phoned reporters at odd hours and often invited them to travel with him in planes, helicopters and on the road.

In parliament, he showed the way for his cabinet colleagues by stopping in the corridors to take reporters' questions - a practice Thabo Mbeki stopped the moment he took over as president.

Madiba has been frank about his personal feelings and experiences in his books and interviews, too.

This period in Mandela's life does deserve particular privacy and everyone I know respects that. I suspect, however, that Madiba might have preferred to use it to break more taboos.

In March 1996, when he sought a divorce from Madikizela-Mandela, he could so easily have invoked the law to ensure that his wrenching testimony of betrayal remained private. But he didn't.

"Ever since I came back from prison, not once has the defendant ever entered our bedroom while I was awake," he told the court. "I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her."

I don't know why he chose to share the pain of his failed marriage but I do know that, in 2005, when he spoke to reporters hours after the death of his only surviving son, Makgatho, it was to shatter a taboo he personally found hard to break.

"My son died of Aids," he told the world's television audiences.

Now he is going through a decline of a sort that many people find difficult to manage, or to understand. Many families have to cope with beloved relatives whose faculties are fading and could draw strength from the shared experience of the Mandela family.

Regular news briefings with the doctors who are treating him and with willing representatives of the family would quell the speculation and could encourage public understanding of this difficult but ordinary life stage.

They would also feel closer to the man who probably is more universally loved at home and abroad than any mortal before him.