JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Outside the home of Nelson Mandela on Friday the only signs the former president was in poor health were a garden of pebbles bearing messages of love, and a gaggle of reporters waiting idly for any hard facts about the freedom icon’s fight against a recurrent lung infection.
A few metres away from the suburban Houghton home, a makeshift journalist camp had sprung up. In the two days since Mandela had been in hospital, dozens of reporters had arrived with cameras and lighting to waiting for more news about the leader’s health.
Actual information was hard to come by. Beyond the yellow-beige walls of Mandela’s secured compound, little stirred.
A 40-minute drive away in Pretoria, another scrum of reporters was camped out across the road from the brick-faced and gated 1 Military Hospital, one of the sites the Nobel laureate was thought to have been taken for medical attention.
Since the media frenzy of 2011, when the world’s journalists gathered in Johannesburg, the government had sent out regular updates about Mandela’s health.
A line of communication was established with the public, usually via presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj, but even the occasional statement from President Jacob Zuma. His office, on Friday, went as far as confirming that Mandela had “enjoyed a full breakfast” that morning.
Other than these snippets of news, the presidency had so far been vague about the details of Mandela’s newest hospitalisation.The lack of tangible details has left the international media struggling to piece a story together from the few fragments of facts available.
While the world waited to hear the latest news, the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria were much quieter than usual. Rather than tension or uneasiness, the cities were calm.
Easter weekend had ushered most locals away from the city. The usually full roads were breezy and traffic-free.
In fact, there was none of the frenzy that would be expected when the country’s most famous figure was possibly in a battle for his life.
At Bree Street Taxi Rank, Johannesburg’s largest and usually busiest taxi depot, traders and customers milled around leisurely as a rainstorm flooded the streets outside.
Inside, not everyone knew that Madiba, as Mandela is affectionately known, had been hospitalised yet again.
Most passers-by expressed sadness at his ailing health, but this was followed quickly by joy at the news that he is, as the government has said, “in good spirits”.
As soon as the moment presented itself, many people were also eager to launch into animated political discussions about crime and corruption
“I’ve heard that he’s been sick, I feel so bad,” MduduzoXimba, 13, said quietly at his mother’s stall at the taxi stand.
“I think people just don’t know [he is sick] because they don’t watch the news,” he said.
‘Aggressive news culture’
The leading newspapers seemed to mirror the lack of public hysteria. Front pages on Friday focusing instead on South African troops in the Central African Republic, Oscar Pistorius, and an ex-police chief who won a court appeal against drunk-driving charges.
Perhaps the lack of sensationalised accounts is understandable.
An article in leading weekly Mail & Guardian identified that South Africa’s is not an “aggressive news culture” where journalists sneak into hospital wards and scale fences to get the story.
Respecting privacy, the report claimed, is a media priority. Without more details, the story of Mandela’s health has naturally slipped down the news agenda.
For the public, there may also be a sense that it is “more of the same”.
The article quoted Franz Kruger, a journalism professor at Wits University, as saying/ “The first time round there was enormous upsurge of interest and this time there is a little less.”
On the Twittersphere, however, the Mandela hash-tag was still simmering with people worldwide sending their thoughts and support.
After all, as the teenaged Ximba pointed out, Mandela “brought freedom to everyone”.