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Secrecy over Mandela's health fuels concern for South Africa icon

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

JOHANNESBURG -- Nelson Mandela's life is an open book. Volumes chronicle every aspect of his 94 years. However, all that changed earlier this month when he was hospitalized.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma and his spokesman have released several brief statements saying essentially that Mandela "continues recovering,” and that there’s “no crisis.” The latest, issued Monday, said Mandela would spend Christmas Day in hospital, with Zuma asking "all freedom-loving people around the world to pray for him."

All this has done little to quell the widespread fear in South Africa and around the world that the end of the life of “Madiba” -- as the beloved elder statesman is affectionately known here – is near.


After more than two weeks of rumor, speculation and cryptic comments, very little is known for certain about how Mandela is really doing as he recovers from surgery to remove gallstones and treatment for a respiratory infection.

Country 'a bit nervous'
It’s been his longest hospital stay since everything changed in South Africa, when Mandela was released from prison and apartheid ended some two decades ago.

“For a man of his age, Mandela is not doing badly,” Tokyo Sexwale, the government’s minister of human affairs, said in an interview in the garden outside his home.

Sexwale, who has known and worked closely with Mandela since the 1970s, is also a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, or “the center of his memory,” as Sexwale calls it.

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He said the Foundation receives anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 messages of prayer, support and concern every week for Mandela.

“I hope, Godspeed, he’ll still be with us for quite some time. The country feels a bit nervous, it’s like a family losing the father,” he added.

He did not reveal specific details about Mandela’s condition or prognosis.

“You have to speak quite loudly to him,” observed Peter Paul Ngwenya, who told NBC News that he was last with Mandela a few weeks ago.

“He is very forgetful,” he said of the man he clearly idolizes. “He does remember faces and he does remember names.”

Nelson Mandela undergoes surgery to remove gallstones

Former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated for a recurring lung infection. South African authorities gave few details about his illness, but have now said the 94-year-old is responding well to treatment. NBC's Rohit Kachroo reports.

Sexwale and Ngwenya are former freedom fighters and political prisoners, a generation younger than Mandela.

Sexwale was sentenced in 1977 to 18 years on Robben Island for treason and terrorism.  He served 13 years, much of it while Mandela was there.

Trying to avoid 'death-watch circus'
Ngwenya was convicted of similar offenses in 1985 and sentenced to 15 years. History was kind to him and as apartheid crumbled he was released early in 1990.

The government has been notably brief about their hero's health.

Its line is that it must protect Mandela's privacy, dignity, and give his doctors the space they need to care for him.

“They really don’t want to turn this into a ghoulish, death-watch circus,” said Brooks Spector, a retired diplomat, academic, and NBC News consultant in South Africa.

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What's more, this is not a culture like in America, where doctors routinely hold daily press briefings about high profile cases.

“The government has never felt comfortable with the prying eyes of the media,” Spector said.

First the government said it was a visit for "routine tests."

Later, it was revealed he had a "respiratory infection."

Finally came the announcement about the surgery, all with little explanation, and no opportunity for the media to ask questions.

Since Mandela entered an unidentified hospital on Dec. 8 there has been something of a shell game. Is he at this or that hospital?

Is he heading home, or there already?  Maybe he's going to Qunu, his homeland in a remote part of the Eastern Cape. Mandela has said he wants to spend his final days there.

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All about peace, reconciliation
For days the government would only say Mandela was in a hospital in Pretoria, the capital, without saying which one.

Professor Adam Habib, of the University of Johannesburg, said the problem was that “the government tends not to be transparent and that breeds conspiracy theories.” 

Habid said his sense of things was that “Mandela is not on his deathbed.”

He said he did not think the government was lying about Mandela’s condition, but the entire situation should be handled in a “more mature way.”

It doesn’t help that there’s growing and widespread criticism of the government and Zuma, who faces hundreds of corruption allegations.

And nearly 20 years after Mandela was elected president, it’s difficult to find anyone who truly believes the nation and its leaders have lived up to his dream and his ideals.

Meanwhile, South Africa hopes and prays for the best. When you ask someone here about Mandela, there’s often a pause before an answer. It’s a brief difficult moment when many perhaps allow themselves to contemplate the inevitable. 

Reflecting on the last time he saw the quite frail Mandela a few weeks ago, Ngwenya said he was “sad to see him like that, but I was happy that he’s still around, because it’s like to have a parent who brought you up, and now you’re looking after them.”

“It is good that your grandchildren and your children can still see this icon,” he added.

Sexwale noted, “We draw strength not from the fact that Mandela is in the declining part of his years, but from the youth of his ideas. That’s what keeps this country alive.”

Those ideas, he said, were all about peace and reconciliation. “I hope the memory of his ideas will be that which will drive not only our people here in South Africa, but all those who are inspired all over the world.”

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