John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South African Preoccupation with Nelson Mandela’s Health

by John Campbell
March 1, 2012

A girl walks past portraits of former South African President Nelson Mandela, painted by O.J. Zwane, in Soweto February 26, 2012. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


This week, former president Nelson Mandela was briefly hospitalized for “a minor diagnostic procedure” and then released with a clean bill of health. He is staying at his house in Houghton, a suburb of Johannesburg, rather than returning to his home village in the Eastern Cape, some 500 miles away, where he usually lives.

The South African media followed closely the former president’s hospitalization, and, among others, the office of South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, issued periodic statements. To me, it looks like every effort was made to be transparent with the public about the former president’s hospitalization while protecting of his privacy.

However, such is Nelson Mandela’s role in South Africa’s new national identity, and for those devoted to liberation, reconciliation and democracy around the world, it should come as no surprise that conspiracy theories emerged. Over the past weekend, I was contacted by journalists from outside South Africa asking me to comment on an alleged “cover-up.” I tried to assure them that I saw no evidence of any.

This episode illustrates once again Mandela’s towering role in the creation of a new South Africa based on democratic and non-racial ideals. Case in point: in a continent where too many chiefs of state try to remain in office indefinitely, as we are seeing now with Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal, Nelson Mandela stepped down from the presidency after a single term.

Nelson Mandela recalls India’s Jawaharlal Nehru with respect to state building. In India, during Nehru’s last years, there was pervasive anxiety about what would happen after he died. In South Africa, there is a similar anxiety about the inevitable post-Mandela future. (The former president is ninety-three years of age.) That contributes to the intense public focus on the former president’s health.

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