By Robyn Dixon
Los Angeles Times / MCT
JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s ruling African National Congress defended a controversial decision last week to allow the broadcast on television of a video of an unsmiling Nelson Mandela, looking frail, pallid and uncomfortable, as people snapped flash photos of him when President Jacob Zuma and other ANC luminaries visited him at his house.
Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president, was recently hospitalized with pneumonia and is recovering at home under medical supervision.
South Africans reacted with alarm on Twitter and other social networks after the video was broadcast Monday on government-controlled SABC-TV.
The SABC telecast appeared to contradict reality, with Zuma describing Mandela, 94, as fine and “up and about.” Mandela was seated on a chair with a pillow behind his head, and a blanket over him. His right cheek showed a slight impression or pressure mark that may have been left by an oxygen mask or other medical equipment.
Zuma’s ebullience that Mandela was so “well” seemed to underscore how ill Mandela must have been recently, if this was what Zuma considered Mandela looking fine.
“We saw him, he’s looking very good, he’s in good shape. We had some conversation with him, shook hands, he smiled, as you can see him, that he’s really up and about and stabilized. We’re really very happy. We think that he’s fine,” Zuma said in an interview with SABC outside Mandela’s front door.
Much of the outrage on South African social media concerned criticisms of the invasion of Mandela’s privacy by the ANC. Some accused the ANC of using a frail old man for political purposes.
Others expressed concern about the use of flashes, since South African and international media are well-versed on the rule never to use flash photography with Mandela, whose eyes are said to be highly sensitive to bright light after years of working in a limestone quarry when imprisoned on Robben Island.
At one point when a flash went off, Mandela closed his eyes, looking discomforted.
He remained stiff and unresponsive as officials urged him to smile.
Mandela is revered by South Africans for his role in fighting apartheid and ushering in a peaceful democracy in 1994. Whenever the former president falls ill, the nation holds its breath, and on several occasions rumors of his death have exploded on social networks.
“Mandela survived 27 years in prison, only to become a prisoner of the ANC marketing machine,” said one South African on Twitter. “And the DA is no better,” he added in another tweet, referring to a recent advertising campaign by the opposition Democratic Alliance, showing a photograph of Mandela with his arm around Helen Suzman, an independent lawmaker during the apartheid years who for many years was the only anti-apartheid voice in the parliament.
Others were simply shocked by how poorly Mandela, known in South Africa affectionately by his clan name Madiba, appeared.
“They need to stop saying Mandela is doing well. Look at him,” one South African wrote on Twitter.
“Poor Nelson Mandela. Let him be. No elderly person deserves that,” said another.
Another said Mandela had been treated “like an animal in a zoo.”
Zuma’s government has struggled to find the right tone in dealing with Mandela’s frailty and recent health crises. It has tended to report news late, allowing rumors to swirl, and has misled the public about which hospital he has been treated in and how seriously ill he has been.
Mandela contracted tuberculosis when he was in jail and has struggled with lung infections and other complications in recent years. The ANC said Monday’s video was an effort to keep South Africa and the world informed on Mandela’s condition.