Is there a right way to handle Mandela?

South Africans differ on whether releasing footage of President Zuma visiting ailing Mandela was a mere publicity stunt.

On Monday the South Africa’s ruling ANC party released a video showing a very frail Nelson Mandela. He had not been seen in months.

Was it a PR stunt by President Jacob Zuma or a genuine move to show South Africans and the world that the anti-apartheid icon is still alive?

This is how the drama began: News started trickling in that the state broadcaster SABC would release footage of Mandela in a few hours. Earlier in the day the ruling African National Congress issued a statement saying Nelson Mandela is “in good health and good spirits”.

I suspect for most people this was interesting news. Every week there is a rumour here about Mandela being on life support and some extreme stories even suggest he possibly died months ago and the government is keeping it quiet for whatever reason.

As bizarre as some of the rumours are and will be in the future, they do keep some people here speculating about Mandela’s health.

Those who were interested in seeing Mandela tuned into Monday’s main news bulletin. I was one of them.

As expected, the visit to Mandela’s home was the lead story. President Zuma, senior ANC officials and family members gathered around Mandela taking photographs, smiling, laughing and encouraging the 94-year-old former statesman to smile too.

Things backfired

A visibly frail Mandela stared mostly straight ahead, his face showing little expression in the video.

It seemed from the smiles and laughing the ANC thought they had done a good job. But moments after the video was released, things backfired.

On Tuesday morning a frustrated Jackson Mthembu from the ANC was shocked that some South Africans were upset by the video. We were in his office at Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg. He had been up since 6am in the morning taking calls from journalists and doing interviews.

“When we don’t show you pictures of Mandela, you say the ANC is hiding him,” he said.

“When we show you Madiba, you say we are exploiting the old man for political mileage. Whatever we do, we can’t win with the peole of South Africa.”

He was talking about the comments on social media, many of which attacked the ANC for putting on such a show for the cameras and then distributing it for the world to see.

There were many comments on Twitter. One from radio presenter Aki Anastasiou read: “He looks so frail. I wish they’d just leave him in peace.”

A general election takes place next year and all political parties use Mandela for votes when they can. He is afterall seen as a unifying force for the rainbow nation.

The ANC and Zuma are being accused of doing just that by critics. It’s an allegation denied by the party.

Some tweets called it an invasion of Mandela’s privacy.

Comments in social media in South Africa are by no means representative of the nation.

Fair amount of influence

If you are making statements on Twitter, it’s assumed you can afford the gadgets to do so. You are not necessarily part of the millions struggling to get by living in the rural areas, townships and informal settlements.

But the social media scene is made up of people with a fair amount of influence, some of money and political connections.

In downtown Johannesburg, some thought Zuma “messed up” but a few seemed genuinely happy to see Mandela on TV after so long. Some did admit they were shocked at how “he has aged and how frail he looks” but were still happy to see him.

Mandela has been in and out of hospital a lot recently. South Africans have been given updates from the presidency every so often on his condition.

They never actually got to see for themselves how he was doing.

Some South Africans say leave Mandela in peace, that he should not be bothered. They may be right.

But I guarantee you should a few weeks or months go by without any updates on Mandela’s health from the government, the rumours will start flying again.

They will keep getting more dramatic and creative as people who take an interest in this issue weave their conspiracy theories and weigh in on what they think is really going on.

So how can President Zuma and the ANC do things better next time?

Any suggestions?

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