Sagacity central
21 October 2014 08:53 (South Africa)
South Africa

Mandela's illness and government's messy relationship with the media

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa
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Is Mandela at One Military Hospital, recuperating from endoscopic gallstone surgery? Or at his Houghton home? In a week that has seen journalists trailing from one hospital to the next, what is certain is that the manner in which the South African government has handled communications around Madiba’s health has again put its relationship with the international media corps under stress. By MANDY DE WAAL.

The clouds were gathering over One Military Hospital when Daily Maverick went in search of the media covering the Mandela story. At the entrance to the government medical facility – which has housed the former president before – soldiers were checking cars going in and out of the hospital.

Across the road from One Military, a phalanx of media from international and local news networks were parked in a cul-de-sac facing the hospital’s entrance. “I don’t understand why they [the SA government] treat the media like the enemy, which is what this feels like. I wouldn’t imagine this is doing Brand South Africa any good at all,” says a journalist from a massive global news channel, speaking to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity. “Mandela is an international figure and there is a global audience that wants to know what’s happened to him. The world is watching and they want to know how he is, because of the rest of the South African story predicates on Mandela.”

The last time Mandela was hospitalised, the same scenario played out. This time round it was no different. On Saturday 8 December 2012, The Presidency issued a statement in which advised that former president Nelson Mandela had been “admitted in hospital in Pretoria to undergo tests”. The statement indicated that this was medical attention that was required “from time to time” and which was “consistent with his (Mandela’s) age.” Zuma assured everyone that Madiba was doing well, and that was no cause for alarm.

The hospital wasn’t named, but by Sunday 9 December, when the news was circling the world, the Presidency said that Zuma had visited Madiba, and had found the 94-year-old to be "comfortable and in good care." There were no further details about what ailed Mandela, or information about what tests where being conducted, or where he was being treated.

That same day, Associated Press reported that a checkpoint was established outside One Military Hospital and Mail & Guardian stated that the elder former statesman was at the government medical facility. Soon a contingent of foreign and local press parked outside One Military, as was evidenced by the white vans with satellite dishes, outside broadcast units, big cameras and journalists with camp chairs and portable shade.

On Monday 10 December 2012, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula went to One Military Hospital and stopped to speak to journalists camped outside the hospital. She told the journalists: "He's doing very, very well. And it is important to keep him in our prayers and also to be as calm as possible and not cause a state of panic, because I think that is not what all of us need."

On Wednesday 12 December, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor briefed the National Press Club and said: “I join President Jacob Zuma, and millions of people worldwide, in extending my best wishes to our former president, Nelson Mandela, who is currently undergoing treatment at the No. 1 military Hospital in Pretoria. I look forward to his early release so that he can join his family for the festive season.”

But on Thursday 13 December, EWN broke the story that Madiba wasn’t at One Military. EWN said Mandela was at a hospital in Pretoria known only to the news station.

On the same day, Beeld reported that Mandela had been admitted to a private hospital on Saturday 8 December at 15h30. Beeld added that Surgeon General Veejay Ramlakan, widely understood to be Madiba’s medical caretaker, was at the hospital, which was well secured by what looked like members of SAPS’ VIP unit and the defence force. 

“It is shocking. It is really shocking,” a foreign journalist camped outside One Military told Daily Maverick. “The minister of defence shouldn’t be the minister of defence anymore, because she lied. It is as simple as that,” the media worker said.

On Friday 14 December at noon, a blue-light convoy entered the private hospital, now identified as the MediClinic Heart Hospital in Arcadia. Media reported that journalists were barred from entering the hospital, and that a military ambulance with yellow number plates exited shortly afterward with the blue-light convoy. But on the same day, when Mac Maharaj was asked whether Mandela had left the private hospital, the presidential spokesperson said the Nobel Prize winner hadn’t been discharged

When Madiba was first admitted, the official word was that he had a lung complaint, but by Saturday 15 December, the Presidency revealed that Mandela underwent minor surgery to have gallstones removed

On Tuesday, the international news corps still shuffled between hospitals, or Madiba’s house in Houghton, Johannesburg. But the MediClinic Heart Hospital in Arcadia was devoid of any SAPS or defence force security when Daily Maverick did a tour of Pretoria hospitals, as were other hospitals we visited in the suburb. 

A number of news networks were still camped outside of One Military. “If this was the US, the government would tell you what was going on. They’d run press conferences with continual streams of information. They would [have] lines and cables, and we’d be able to take feeds, and we would be able to tell the people what’s going on,” a journalist for a US network said. 

Another member of the media who represented a US cable news channel said: “We don’t know if he is inside, or if he is at home. I don’t know, we really don’t know. We’ve been here for a couple of weeks. We sit here. We read books. We chat to each other. We drink coffee. I think it is pathetic that we don’t know what is going on. The fact that they [the government/the Presidency] don’t tell us is because they don’t know how to handle it, clearly.

“The paranoia with the press is because the government is doing so much wrong, and there is so much corruption and nonsense. They think that we manipulate information which isn’t true – we don’t manipulate information; we tell it like it is. It is game playing. The whole secrecy bill is part of a ‘screw you’ attitude towards the media,” the journalist added.

A local working for an offshore agency chipped in: “I think it is very unfair as the population of South Africa, because we were not told the truth from the minister of defence from the beginning. We just have to wait and see what is going to happen, but I think the whole nation is anxious to know, and they need to be told the truth. That is what we are here for – to give the nation the truth. But now the government isn’t giving us the information, unfortunately. People lose morale when they don’t know what is going on, and there’s a slump because we don’t know what is happening, obviously.”

Outside of Mandela’s home in Houghton, there were more global news crews who said that one of Madiba’s grandchildren had just exited the well secured, high-walled residence. No one was any the wiser about whether Mandela was home.

Earlier the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) accused the government of misleading the public about Mandela, and expressed disappointment at the way the government “sought to deceive the public about the conduct of the media in covering Nelson Mandela's most recent hospitalisation.”

“Senior government representatives have sought to justify misleading statements about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Mandela's whereabouts on the basis of irresponsible conduct by print and broadcast news organisations. Nothing could be further from the truth,” a statement from SANEF read. The forum added that top editors had been working closely with government on a protocol for handling news about Madiba’s health.

“The arrangements were captured in a document that was drawn up after Mr. Mandela's hospitalisation in February this year, after discussions which were described at the time by both media and government representatives as an ‘unprecedented’ trust building exercise that would provide a responsible and well-managed basis for providing information to the billions of people around the world who look to the media for news about a revered statesman.”

News organisations including eNews, SABC, EWN, the Sunday Times, Independent Newspapers, the Mail & Guardian and the Foreign Correspondents Association spent months working on the media plan with government, which was verbally agreed to by former defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

This document contained a code of conduct which included provisos stipulating:

Journalist restrictions to designated zones in the vicinity of the hospital;

That no media were to gain access to the medical facility without permission;

That any breach would result in a media house being expelled or denied future access;

A commitment by journalists to respect government embargoes on information relating to Mandela’s health;

Acknowledgement by media of security arrangements and restricted access imposed at key locations.

The document has yet to be reviewed by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. "The media has been very restrained this time around. In fact we have been very mindful of our Code of Conduct even though the authorities have ignored it. We don't want to be at his bedside; we're saying we are happy to be behind a police cordon several blocks away," Katy Katopodis of EWN said in the statement.

"Nelson Mandela is a global figure. When he is unwell, the entire world is anxious about his well-being. Regular news updates that provide a basic level of information about his condition and the love and support he is receiving are important to billions of people, and prevent a climate of rumours and speculation," said Mail & Guardian’s Nic Dawes.

"Even the international media was prepared to co-operate on this. Our audiences also have a keen interest in Mr. Mandela and have a profoundly deep respect for him," said CCN Africa Bureau Chief Kim Norgaard.

Instead of forging congenial relations with the global press, it appears that as Zuma takes up his second term as ANC president, his office and the security cluster that surrounds him are intent on alienating the media. The security cluster in particular is known for its contempt of the media, but as a new ANC leadership seeks to move forward, they’d do well to remember that the international media plays a big role in informing global markets and the rest of the world about Brand South Africa. DM

Read more:

Photo: A television crew films outside a military hospital where former South African president Nelson Mandela is supposedly hospitalized in Pretoria December 9, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa


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