It came a little late for the shattered nerves of many South Africans, but at last it came: a trustworthy man with a firsthand account of Nelson Mandela being in good spirits, and a doctorly type to declare he is just about on his way home. We now return to our regular programming. By PHILLIP DE WET.
As best we can tell – and on this, unlike Nelson Mandela's health, we're happy to speculate fairly wildly – nobody had a plan for him falling ill. Dying, yes: there are extensive plans for everything from crowd control to breaking the news to the world, but apparently the bit before that never came up.
But it didn't take genius, or even long plodding thought, to come up with the solution. All that was needed, as it turns out, was a hastily convened and shockingly badly-planned press conference with an à la carte menu of reassurances to choose from: the tale of the acting President (and man with the trustworthy face) Kgalema Motlanthe of how Mandela was still good-naturedly giving friends and relatives a hard time, if you like it personal; the statement by the bemedalled surgeon-general of the defence force that the doctors were happy with his condition after much testing, if you like your science; or word from the family that they're preparing for his arrival, if you prefer looking at the logistics.
Whatever your preferred flavour, you could just about hear the world's attention clicking away.
Not that there isn't cause for concern about Mandela's health. Surgeon-general Vejay Ramlakan's carefully-worded statement, which provided all the details we now have about Mandela's condition, contained plenty of qualifiers. The tests Mandela was admitted for were necessary given “his health over the last few years and his age”. No need to panic “at present”. The eminent medical panel looking after him is happy with his recovery from an acute respiratory infection “at this stage”.
None of which matters much to those who had been battered by rumour and speculation of Mandela's death for the last two days. As the immediate reaction on social networks neatly illustrated, South Africans at least are well aware that Mandela is pretty darn sprightly for his age, but still no spring chicken. Knowing he has the same troubles as other mortals doesn't engender fear in itself, though uncertainty sure does. When Mandela was spotted being wheeled back into his Houghton home to be further treated there, foreign correspondents started making travel arrangements and television viewers switched back to soapies.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation says it received more than 10,000 messages of support for Mandela over the two days of the saga, and that's not counting the many, many more posted to Twitter and blogs and exchanged between people on the street. Perhaps that tsunami of warm feeling will convince the Presidency and Mandela's office that waiting two days before breathing a word isn't the best of ideas.
Despite the best efforts of various journalists, however, we still don't know who will take point in communicating any changes in Mandela's health. The ANC and the military doctors ultimately responsible for his care have promised updates as required, and Motlanthe did the same on behalf of the Presidency. Who will actually be at the sharp end of the questions, though? That we still don't know. DM
Photo: Surgeon-general Vejay Ramlakan, acting President Kgalema Motlanthe, and Nelson Mandela's grandson Mandla at the press briefing about Madiba's health at Milpark hospital in Johannesburg on Friday 28 January 2011 (The Daily Maverick).