Madiba: Inside the news blackout

2011-01-30 22:10

This week’s information blackout over former president Nelson Mandela’s health was the result of a fierce behind-the-scenes battle between his family, the Nelson ­Mandela Foundation and the government.

City Press spoke to a range of sources close to this week’s drama and can reveal that:

» The Nelson Mandela Foundation was “chided” by the presidency and the ANC ­after releasing a terse statement on Wednesday saying that Madiba had been admitted to ­Milpark hospital for “routine tests”;

» The government decided to hold back a more comprehensive media statement on Wednesday for fear of confusing the public;

» Existing tensions between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the family over Mandela’s attendance at an ANC election
rally in the Eastern Cape in 2009 escalated this week; and

» The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which was in charge of all communication related to Mandela’s life, will no longer speak about his medical condition.

Foundation CEO Achmat Dangor yesterday downplayed the tension, saying they had asked for “space and peace” a year ago.
 
“The government and the family all ­understand the role of the foundation, so it is a complete exaggeration to say the ­foundation is being marginalised,” Dangor said.

Mandela was discharged from Milpark hospital on Friday afternoon after spending two nights in a private ward for respiratory problems. He is receiving medical attention at his Houghton home.

Acting President Kgalema Motlanthe ­visited Mandela yesterday and said he was doing “very well”.

Speculation about Mandela’s condition intensified after a short statement on Wednesday by Sello Hatang, spokesperson for the ­Nelson Mandela Foundation, was followed by two days of silence.

After saying Mandela was “in no danger”, Hatang switched off his phone for the rest of the week.

Motlanthe confirmed to City Press that Hatang issued his statement just as Mandela’s doctors were meeting the former president’s family on Wednesday.

The presidency, assisted by the military, ­also prepared a statement, but subsequently decided not to release it.

“Ideally, when the defence department took him to hospital, they should have communicated this to the public,” a government official said. “But the problem came when the foundation issued a statement. To avoid sending conflicting messages, the ­government decided to wait.”

Three independent sources involved in the process told City Press that the family and the ANC were upset with Hatang and the foundation. “They were whacked from all sides,” said one source.

This led to a “power shift” in the control over Mandela’s communication.

Neither Hatang nor Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, who works from the foundation, were allowed to ­communicate with the press.

According to a Mandela family insider, many in the family have long believed the foundation to be “greedy, overstaffed and not very competent”.

“They simply do not have the capacity to handle the media frenzy that erupts around Madiba, as this week showed.”

­Dangor told City Press: “I don’t see how ­anybody can say the foundation has been marginalised.” He attended Friday’s press briefing, but did not speak.

“Mr Mandela’s healthcare has been in the hands of the SA National Defence Force for some time,” said Dangor. “What did not exist was a formalised coordinating protocol, which has now been established. It is the ­doctors who will keep the public informed.”

Some say the foundation’s role will be ­reduced to a “small, largely academic ­institution”, but Dangor says they will now focus on the “core” of their work – the Centre of Memory, including the Mandela archives.

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