John Simpson

Why is Nelson Mandela’s health a state secret?

A distasteful culture of news management has arisen around South Africa’s former president

Why is Nelson Mandela's health a state secret?
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When President Jacob Zuma reassures a journalist, as he did last week, that Nelson Mandela’s condition is improving slightly, the entire world sighs with relief. Yet it has become hard to get trustworthy information about the man the world most admires.

Mandela’s wife Graça doesn’t seem to be so involved in the key decisions about him any more. Instead, the occasional morsels of information which the world eagerly seizes on come largely from politicians. More strangely still, the South African government hasn’t let anyone know which hospital is treating him. In December, when he was being treated in Pretoria, an elaborate official deception allowed the South African and international press to believe he was in one particular hospital, when in fact he was in an entirely different one.

At one point a leading ANC official even appeared in front of the cameras outside the wrong hospital and gave the impression that he had just seen him. Jacob Zuma himself announced that, when he went to see him, Mandela had called out joyfully to him in a strong voice, using Zuma’s tribal name. Well, maybe he did; but given Mandela’s frailty of body and mind, this would be a bit -surprising.

Those of us with memories long enough to go back to the news blackouts which surrounded figures like Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev find all this a bit disturbing. South Africa isn’t a 1970s or ’80s Marxist-Leninist state; why can’t it at least tell us where Nelson Mandela is being treated? Neither the ANC nor President Zuma himself have any great cause to love the press, but not even they would suspect that reporters or photographers might try to sneak into Mandela’s room to see how he was getting on. When I was in South Africa covering the ANC congress last December, at the time Mandela was in hospital, the BBC was offered what purported to be a photograph of him asleep or unconscious in his hospital bed, presumably taken by one of the nurses. We refused even to look at it, and no other news organisation bought it or used it.

But the secrecy, the occasional outright dishonesty, and the evidence of an instinct to control all information about Mandela’s condition are disturbing in a country which is otherwise an effective and vibrant democracy. It is a good four years now, starting a little before the time of his 90th birthday, since Nelson Mandela withdrew into the mists of old age. For several years before that, the people around him were careful not to give him a chance to speak publicly. In the last interview he gave, he was remarkably critical of the record of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. After that, there were no more meetings with journalists.

In 2009, the BBC wanted to make a programme to celebrate Mandela’s 90th birthday, which it would have made freely available around the world as an act of homage to him. But there was no co-operation from the group which controlled his affairs, so the big celebration of his birthday was downgraded to a retrospective using video of him which had never previously been seen; Mandela himself was allowed to play no part whatever in the programme. His last public appearance was at the 2010 World Cup, when he was clearly very frail but still seemed reasonably alert for the brief time he was in the public eye.

Nowadays he is withdrawn, only intermittently recognising some of the people closest to him. There are, apparently, occasional flashes of the old Nelson Mandela, but they’re fewer and fewer. Sadly, it’s unlikely that if nature is allowed to take its course he’ll see the year out.

None of this is surprising. Mandela has lived a very long and stressful life, and we are lucky that he has survived so long. The real problem lies with us: we find it hard to let go of him, because he represents something so important to us. Nelson Mandela was the one political leader who behaved as most of us would like all our political leaders to behave, and we find it hard to come to terms with the thought that he is leaving us.

But some have more pressing reasons not to want him to go. There are people in his family who trade on their relationship to him, and who will lose out once he dies. And of course there are the politicians. Their future positions may not depend on their links to Nelson Mandela, but life may be a little more stable while he is alive. There will be a big outburst of grief when his death is finally announced; maybe the government is worried that it will have an unsettling effect on the country. I doubt it will. The 1994 election which brought democracy to South Africa wasn’t just the single most unforgettable moment of my entire career, it demonstrated a basic calmness and decency about the country which, in spite of all its problems, certainly hasn’t gone away.

But the evidence of news management, of political sleight of hand in the government’s treatment of Nelson Mandela’s condition, is worrying. It shows that some people at the top of the ANC believe news is what the government says it is: a return to the statist attitudes of the 1970s. It’s not an approach Nelson Mandela himself would have taken when he was in power, or afterwards.

Let’s hope all this is just an unpleasant blip. South Africa remains a remarkably open and attractive country to live and work in. If we know so much about its less attractive side, that is because it has such a vibrant press, which refuses to pipe down about anything. But it’s time the government was more open and honest about the condition of the best-loved man on earth. Manipulating the news about him is unworthy of South Africa, and of Nelson Mandela himself.

‘Which letters of the law would you like to abide by?’
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.