Why is Nelson Mandela's health a state secret?

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

6 April 2013

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.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.

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  • The Sage

    Who is sighing with relief? I’m certainly not. Even if I was being charitable, then the guy’s 94 and had a good innings so what’s there to be upset about.
    “The man the world most admires”? You have got to be kidding. This is a convicted terrorist married to a woman who routinely murdered (or was involved in the murder of) young men/boys. Come off it.
    But I suppose if you have worked at the BBC for most of your life, then you are bound to think this way.

  • Leelywhite

    It’s all about money. He’s surrounded and controlled by a vast circle of hangers on and scroungers. Check the following article written by an ex South African a few years ago.


  • anyfool

    Besides his family becoming multimillionaires and the illusion that he can bring peace and prosperity to the world the BBC inhabits, what has he actually done that has contributed to the financial and political prospects of South Africa.
    It is in a downward spiral with white trade and business people leaving and being replaced by unskilled people more interested in crime than work.
    The tribal leaders and political leaders creaming off the wealth of the nation.
    Sounds a bit like the UK after that other saviour of the world Brown.
    Mandela and Brown two vastly overated failures.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philani-Nongogo/1193307048 Philani Nongogo

    As for the three fellows below in the form of “The Sage”, “anyfool” and “Leelywhite”, the less said the better! I believe if people do not like this country and its leaders and or people for that matter, they are free to live, no body invited them anyway…clearly they see nothing positive in it…to call Mandela a convicted terrorists is as stupid as that Margaret Thatcher lady …no surprise there…But John I agree with you I wish we had a clear flow of information …however… i invite to learn more of how the South African society functions…just see the three fellow’s thinking below…Mandela and his family deserves some privacy…don’t you think? Even if there is misinformation around this matter…I do not think that this will stop anyone dying ….and that’s include me, you and of course Mandela himself…That you think that the misinformation is about people worried about losing privileges is not only bizarre but contradictory if you read your own thinking in this article closely?

    • The Sage

      So Nelson Mandela was not convicted of terrorism. Sorry I must have got my facts wrong there. I suppose he was sent to Robben Island just for the fun of it.
      The same in regard to his murderous wife. I must have got that wrong too.

  • Kermit

    Simpson wrote an article typical of the BBC champagne left journalists.
    During my 35 years in Johannesburg, I met score of this type of journalists, who, after three days in the
    country have became expert on African problems. South Africa is a
    great democracy where it is good to live? Have you heard of the 38,0000 murders a years?
    Have you heard of 3000 farmers’ murders? Have you lived behind 4 meters high
    walls and electric fences? Have you
    heard of Moeletsi Goduka Mbeki, brother of the ex-president, a political
    economist and the deputy chairman of the South African Institute of
    International Affairs? The staunchest critic of post apartheid and the ANC?
    Mandela the Great Man? Another invention of leftwing media who created the cult
    of Gandhi, the Holy man who was sending letter to his” Dear Friend Hitler”! And
    asking Churchill to surrender to the Nazis. In poor South Africa, Nelson
    Mandela, after 27 years of jail for been a terrorist, became our President, and
    resigned to a clique of corrupt ANC politicians. Does that make him The great
    man, we shall all cry for when he dies? As Mark Twain said”No news is
    no-information, but news is disinformation”!

    worse, how can “The Spectator” allow that kind of article to be published.

  • CliveO

    The South African government (ANC) do not answer to their people on questions in parliament, corruption, policy or Mandela. And their president J Zuma told the country on Thusday to stop asking as they are the elected rulers…!

  • v_3

    “South Africa isn’t a 1970s or ’80s Marxist-Leninist state”
    Umm, the current government, and some of its components (for instance the SA Communist Party, National Union of Metalworkers) are certainly doing their best to make it one.

    Simpson obviously missed the “Secrecy Bills” that the ANC recently passed and their continued demonisation, in the best Stalinist manner, of critics, especially the media.

  • amandla

    i blv dat mandela is also a devil dats y

  • MikeF

    What makes a democracy ‘vibrant’ as opposed to whatever an unvibrant democracy might be? The word is a multiculturalist platitude – no more. As to why the news of Nelson Mandela’s illness is being kept under wraps is there really any mystery – the present ANC South African govenment is inefficient and nepotistic but hopes its association with Mandela can provide it with a veneer of prestige and credibility. Without him it will have only its own record, which isn’t all that great. But maybe South Africa’s democracy will at some poing actually prove instrumental in turfing out the present administration and replacing with something better. I wonder if the BBC line would be to describe it as ‘vibrant’ then.

  • D B

    Mao Tse Tung

  • Roy

    The poor bloke can’t live forever. He may have brought South Africa into a new kind of delusionary distracted new way that is hard to figure out, but it isn’t going to do what they said it would except bring untold riches to the few able to become leaders. When the people find they are worse off, unless they turn to crime, that is where it will end.

  • Angela Hackett

    ‘Mandela’s wife Graça doesn’t seem to be so involved in the key decisions about him any more’
    I recently read an article that recommended her to flee the country the minute he dies for her own sake. The article reflected the control his family has over every single detail of his last days, a terrible shame for Mandela who sacrificed his personal life for the good of his fellowmen and his country

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