It is widely speculated on social networks that the 95-year-old Madiba will remain in intensive-care limbo until his passing can be unveiled to maximum ANC benefit in next year’s general election.
For after all, if this speculation is vile calumny, the ANC will point to it as merely another example of the paranoia that in 1994 had local whiteys stocking up on tinned food. And in the unlikely event that it is true, anyone who matters would agree that Mandela, were he compos mentis, would readily acquiesce in such an act of final oblation.
These rumours are outlandish but not unprecedented. From the first day of Mandela’s hospitalisation with a serious lung infection in the early hours of June 8, it has been difficult to separate fact from fiction. It’s been a case of spin doctors rather than medical doctors.
Instead of daily detailed medical bulletins, the public interest in the health of the world’s secular saint has had to make do with irregular, anodyne updates from presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj. With hordes of journalists struggling for the past 11 weeks to fill regular broadcast crossings to “our reporter on the spot”, it was inevitable that the scantily available facts would be laced with speculation. Maharaj at one stage rebuked the world for all the “unhelpful and hurtful” rumours.
Any possible corrective effect of these stern words was negated just days later by Maharaj’s admission that at least one rumour was correct – the ambulance taking Mandela to hospital two weeks earlier had indeed broken down, leaving its critically ill patient stranded. While government has been secretive and evasive, the fractious Mandela clan, lacking any decorum, has paraded in public its tawdry in-fighting.
Nevertheless, they kept urging the same media to whom they were leaking information, to “respect” Madiba. For example, eldest daughter Makaziwa Mandela lambasted the “crass” media and accused the “racist” foreign press of insensitivity to cultural boundaries. If they “really cared” about Mandela, it was not necessary that “everything … has to be out there in the public”.
This self-righteousness was poorly timed. Days later the squabbling Mandela heirs were providing to the exact same “racist” and “crass” media the gory details of the secret exhumation of three of Madiba’s children by his estranged grandson Mandla Mandela. Then Makaziwa and 15 other relatives brought an urgent court application against Mandla in which they asserted that Madiba was in a “permanent vegetative state” and that the physicians had recommended switching off the life support.
This was quickly contradicted by the presidency, but it then refused to explain further out of “respect” for Mandela’s privacy. In the absence of regular bulletins from doctors not lay assessments delivered en passant by ex-wife Winnie, who is basking her return to the media spotlight rumours, whispers and innuendo will dominate.
Respect for Mandela doesn’t mean pandering to a dysfunctional extended family. The presidency should ask itself how Mandela would want the matter handled. If it is uncertain, it could simply ask Graca Machel. She is, after all, his actual wife. She also appears to be the only one in the family who understands what “dignity” and “respect” mean.