Tight rein kept on Mandela health updates

2013-03-29 22:14
Nelson Mandela portrait (Picture: AFP)

Nelson Mandela portrait (Picture: AFP)

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Cape Town - With strictly controlled updates on Nelson Mandela's health, the world's media juggle intense interest in the South African icon and calls to respect his privacy.

The ailing 94-year-old, as admitted to an undisclosed hospital just before midnight on Wednesday with a renewed chest infection.

Since then, as in three previous hospitalisations, there has been little official word on his condition, treatment or location.

The last update earlier in the day said that Mandela is in 'good spirits' as he continues his hospital stay.

"Mandela is in good spirits and enjoyed a full breakfast this morning," said presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj in a statement.

"The doctors report that he is making steady progress."

Maharaj said Mandela remained under treatment and observation.

President Jacob Zuma's office acts as the strict gatekeeper to all news on Mandela's condition.

It issues updates, but details such as his location are held back, citing privacy reasons.

This was likely due to a "genuine concern for his privacy to be respected" which was fair, said Lucy Holborn of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

While transparency was best to stamp out wild speculation, controlling the information flow was also a way to manage the massive international attention if his health worsened.

"I imagine the thinking is the more they control the information they have, the more they can manage that process smoothly," she said.

So far it has worked, perhaps because, unlike in more aggressive news cultures, reporters on Mandela watch do not sneak into hospital wards, scale the walls of his house or harass his family.

In the absence of details, Mandela's health has slipped down the news agenda.

His latest sickness was a leading news item around the world on Thursday when the news broke.

But in South Africa, it was lower on the rung and has since featured as the third of fourth items on news bulletins.

More of the same

"There's a sense that it's more of the same," said Franz Kruger, a journalism professor at Wits University.

"The first time round there was enormous upsurge of interest and this time there is a little less."

In local media, there is also a degree of reluctance and sensitivity to talk of Mandela ageing and death, he said.

"The local media are not immune to the enormous stature ard the enormous emotional hold that he has on South Africans as a nation," said Kruger.

Editor of the weekly Mail&Guardian Nic Dawes said: "Most South African journalists know that if they were seen to be in any way invading his privacy, or that of his family, that the public would be incredibly angry with that."

Horrified responses have followed the making public of plans for Mandela's death, as South Africans are both fiercely protective of him but ravenous for details.

The erection of cameras across from his rural village home also sparked an outcry.

Trust was dented during an 18 day hospital stay in December, when journalists felt misled over some details which had damaged confidence in the official news channel, said Dawes.

A perception of the press as "ghoulish vultures" was not true.

"We want Madiba to get better," he said.

"And at the same time, of course, it's very important for the public here and around the world who love him that we're able to do our jobs well."

There has also been a "calmer reaction" from the press to Mandela's more frequent sicknesses in recent years.

"It took the first... hospitalisations really for us all to get used to the idea that this is a very elderly person and quite a frail person," he said.

"And that we will go through this process a bit like a family with a very beloved older relative who is ill."

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