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Hands Across the Sea — Linthicum’s Letter for July 2013

Mandela: Is This The Long Goodbye?
Tom Linthicum, former executive editor and vice president of The Daily Record, writes a monthly report from the Republic of South Africa — also known as RSA — exclusively for ExPress News.

By Tom Linthicum

Since June 8, this nation and its media have been obsessed with one story – the health of Nelson Mandela.

Not that there haven’t been plenty of other juicy headlines. There is the ongoing scandal of how $2.8 million worth of “security improvements “ to the country home of President Jacob Zuma has morphed into a $28 million boondoggle . And there is the story of how 15 construction companies have been fined $146 million for a bid-rigging scheme involving some of the largest projects in South African history, including five stadiums built for the World Cup.

But the story that keeps on giving is the plight of Nelson Mandela. He has been in a Pretoria hospital for more than six weeks, battling a recurring lung infection behind a wall of secrecy about his condition and amid unseemly squabbles among members of his family and crass attempts by politicians to make one last visit or have one last picture taken with the father of the new South Africa.

The media attention is entirely understandable. The Nobel laureate who helped lead the country to freedom and became its first democratically elected president, is now 95 years old and failing. Widely beloved and respected, his health is indeed a topic of national and international concern.

Yet, unfortunately, the story is unfolding with all the dignity of a tawdry soap opera.

All official statements about Mandela’s condition are issued by President Zuma’s office, which has made ‘critical but stable” its mantra. When there is an information vacuum in a major story like this in a country with a free press, that press rushes to fill it. And so the media in all forms – print, television, radio, electronic and social – have been filled with leaks, interviews, some good investigative reporting, photo ops and rampant speculation involving parts of the Mandela saga.

When Mandela was hospitalized for this latest bout with illness, it was the fourth time in six months. Coverage quickly settled into the pattern established previously.
TV crews set up base camps outside the hospital. There were frequent updates on his condition, but a steady diet of “critical but stable” got very old very fast. There were also random interviews with passers- by, who wished Mandela a speedy recovery.

President Jacob Zuma, who is up for re-election next year, has hovered around the hospital, paying visits and making pronouncements about Mandela’s health. But he has been more circumspect than he was in April, when he and top members of the African National Congress, the political party of Mandela and Zuma, made a pilgrimage to Mandela’s home for a photo op after Mandela’s last release from the hospital. Zuma issued an upbeat statement describing the visit, describing Mandela as “up and about.” But in a video of the visit, Mandela was expressionless and motionless while Zuma and others smiled and chatted.

Zuma was pilloried by criticism from the press and public for attempting to exploit the Mandela connection, perhaps one last time while former president was alive, for political gain.
During Mandela’s most recent hospitalization, the biggest scoop has come from 60 Minutes, which reported that the ambulance carrying Mandela had broken down on its way to the hospital, and he was stranded for 30 minutes until a relief vehicle arrived.

The CBS news program also reported that Mandela’s kidneys were functioning at only 50 percent, a personal medical detail viewed by many here, including the BBC, as an invasion of privacy. But the report, still not confirmed, provided the first serious challenge to the government’s drumbeat of “serious but stable” reports being fed to an anxious public. More recently, there have been news reports that Mandela’s organs were failing and he was on life support. Yet July 18, Mandela’s 95th birthday, his daughter told reporters that he was making “remarkable progress” and might return home soon.

Speaking of Mandela’s family, some members have been embroiled in a bitter legal struggle over control of his legacy and assets. There also has been a bizarre battle over the proper resting place of three of Mandela’s children. The children were originally buried at Mandela’s ancestral home of Qunu, where he has said he wants to be buried. But Mandela’s grandson had the remains moved to his village two years ago. Now other family members are seeking to have the remains moved back to Qunu.
Even President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa was caught up in the Mandela melodrama with daily headlines speculating whether he would be able to visit Mandela (he didn’t) or would instead meet with family members (he did).

Through all of this drama, the only Mandela family member who has maintained her dignity and grace is Graca Machel, his wife of 15 years, and she has much received favorable news coverage for doing so.

Meanwhile, apparently expecting Mandela to die before their next deadline, many news outlets have already aired, published or e-blasted all forms of tributes and valedictories to him.
There also has been some introspective coverage of the coverage. The Mail & Guardian quoted one reporter’s telephone exchange with his editor: “No, I’m saying there is nothing to report. If there is nothing to report and you don’t want me to report that there is nothing to report, what is it that you want me to report?”

All of this leaves one wondering what will be left for the media to do when Nelson Mandela actually dies. Stay tuned. Film at 11.

As always, all ideas are appreciated. Best to all.
Tom Linthicum
You can write to Tom at lthomas155@aol.com.

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