Africa, Media, Politics

Mandela health scare 2.0: a communication job better done

By Sipho Hlongwane 27 February 2012

Former president Nelson Mandela went into hospital during the past weekend, prompting renewed media interest in his wellbeing. Unlike the last time this happened, the presidency and the ANC were better prepared this time around, and though the news did make headlines around the world, it wasn’t laced with as much panic as January 2011. Someone in government learnt a lesson. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

“President Jacob Zuma wishes to advise that former President Nelson Mandela was admitted to hospital today, the 25 February 2012. Madiba has had a long-standing abdominal complaint and doctors feel it needs proper specialist medical attention,” the message said, posted on the presidency’s website on Saturday morning.

Once again, the heart of many South Africans sunk. However, unlike mid-January last year, there was a sense this time around that Madiba would be okay. And it wasn’t because the former president was necessarily in better health – only because the flow of information to the public was much smoother and the opportunities for speculation and hysteria were minimised.

On Sunday afternoon, the presidency and defence force held a joint press conference where they announced that Mandela had been sent home to Houghton after undergoing minor surgery at an undisclosed location (the general consensus is that Madiba was treated at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria), and that it had all been planned and there was no need to panic.

“The doctors have decided to send him home as the diagnostic procedure he underwent did not indicate anything seriously wrong with him,” the presidency said. At the press conference, defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu gave a name to the procedure that had sent Madiba to hospital: he had undergone a diagnostic laparoscopy after a continued abdominal complaint.

The complaint was apparently tame enough for Madiba to be sent home just hours later.

Obviously, none of this was known when Mandela was first sent to hospital. News crews rushed to Milpark hospital, where he was treated last year, and to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria where he was later rumoured to be.

To refresh your minds: late in January 2011, Mandela was rushed to Milpark Hospital after “something” happened to him. The rumour mill went berserk, thanks to the complete absence of any sort of reassuring word from officials or family. Some said Mandela had actually passed away. Others reported a collapsed lung and other bloodcurdling ailments. Details trickled out slowly. Eventually, some 41 hours after the first news hit the screens, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe called a press conference, and dragged along the surgeon general of the SA defence force.

The president had had a “lung complaint”, we were told, and he was actually quite fine. And from thence forward, there would be one channel of information regarding Mandela: the presidency. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which had previously been in charge of Madiba’s PR, was relegated, and for good reason. They had spectacularly bungled the entire affair with a series of misleading releases which only fuelled the fires of international speculation about the health of the former president.

At the press conference which finally ended it all, Motlanthe’s calm and informative delivery was exactly what everybody needed. The lesson has not been lost on the presidency. In roughly the same space of time as last year’s information vacuum, we’ve had four separate releases by Zuma’s office, all containing updates on Mandela’s health and condition. The only information that was withheld was the exact location of the hospital. The government apparently feared a stampede by concerned citizens.

On Sunday, the government announced that it would be meeting with representatives from the foreign media to discuss issues around the coverage of Madiba’s health. The National Press Club and the South African National Editors’ Forum have been invited to send representatives.

According to NPC chairman (and head of news and current affairs at Primedia Broadcasting) Yusuf Abramjee, the meeting will happen on Monday or Tuesday.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Abramjee said that he didn’t have a clear idea of what was on the government’s agenda, as they had requested the meeting with the media. “But it is important that the engagement continues,” he said.

The meeting isn’t entirely unexpected. The police have launched an investigation into two international news agencies who have apparently set up CCTV cameras across the road from Mandela’s Qunu residence, on the strength of an obscure apartheid-era law which prohibits the filming or photographing of “national key points”.

He also expressed disappointment that some foreign media, including Al-Jazeera and CNN, had initially reported that Madiba underwent hectic surgery this weekend. “Media should be priding itself on accuracy. But the conversation on balancing privacy with the need for information must continue. I will definitely raise the issue of the handling of the media outside 1 Military Hospital to the defence force. I am of the view that the street outside the hospital is not military territory and it was definitely not lawful for the defence force to delete the pictures that the photographer took. However, it is important that we [and government] find each other and establish common ground,” Abramjee said.

The incident referred to happened on Saturday when Theana Breugem of Beeld was forced into a military police van, then made to delete the pictures she had taken of the hospital. The media was then shooed off the Thaba Tshwane complex where the hospital is located, on the strength of that “national key points” legislation.

The NPC chairman congratulated the presidency on having a much better grip on the information this time around.

Despite the minor difference in opinion between the military police and Beeld’s photographer, South Africans will sleep a lot easier knowing that Mandela is back home, and in rude good health. At least, the closest approximation to good health that a 93-year-old man who has lead a harrowing life can ever hope to achieve. And the panic was avoided almost completely because the government wasn’t cagey with information. DM



Read more:

  • Righteous indignation: the mishandling of Nelson Mandela’s illness in Daily Maverick.
  • Motlanthe puts out Madiba fire – how easy was that in Daily Maverick.
  • Former President Mandela goes home on the Presidency website.
  • Mandela discharged from hospital – Presidency in Mail & Guardian.
  • Why Mandela still matters to South Africans fearful for future on CNN.

Photo: Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom lives on in the hearts of many South Africans. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly.

Gallery

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