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(Mike Hutchings/Reuters/Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
(Mike Hutchings/Reuters/Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

AFRICA

Silence surrounds the frail Nelson Mandela as questions are raised about his health Add to ...

Anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela was spending a second night in a military hospital Sunday as officials refused to say anything about his ailment or the medical tests he is undergoing.

The 94-year-old icon of the liberation struggle, who became South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994 after apartheid ended, has been in frail health for years. This is the third time since 2011 that he has needed hospital care.

One local report quoted a source close to the Mandela family as saying: “He has not been talking … he is not looking good.”

The unnamed source, quoted in the Sunday Times, a South African weekly, added: “It’s clear that something is troubling him.”

Pressed for any information on Mr. Mandela’s condition or ailment, spokesmen for President Jacob Zuma have repeatedly insisted that it would be a breach of his privacy to say anything. But the mystery is sparking more questions about the state of his health.

Mr. Mandela has not made any public appearances since 2010, when he received thunderous applause when he rode briefly on a golf cart at a soccer stadium before the final match of the World Cup.

Since then, he has received visitors only occasionally. His last foreign visitor may have been U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had lunch with him and his wife, Graca Machel, in August.

Mr. Zuma visited Mr. Mandela at the Pretoria hospital on Sunday. “He found him comfortable, and in good care,” said a terse four-sentence statement from Mr. Zuma’s office.

A slightly longer statement by the same office on Saturday, when Mr. Mandela was flown to the military hospital in Pretoria, said he was receiving unspecified “tests” and “medical attention” and that this was “consistent with his age.”

The statement added that the former president is “doing well and there is no cause for alarm.”

Just five days ago, a military airplane crashed on a flight from Pretoria to the Eastern Cape city of Mthatha, the nearest airport to Mr. Mandela’s retirement villa in the village of Qunu. The crash killed all 11 people on board.

Despite denials by South Africa’s defence department, there has been widespread speculation that the crashed airplane was bringing medical personnel or supplies to Mr. Mandela, whose medical care is handled by the South African military.

Mr. Mandela was treated for a respiratory infection at a Johannesburg hospital in January, 2011, and he entered hospital again in February this year for a minor procedure related to abdominal pain.

In both cases, officials were slow to acknowledge the real reason for his hospital treatment, fuelling speculation that they might be concealing the truth this time too.

One South African newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, noted that Mr. Mandela’s age could put him at risk of an opportunistic infection in the hospital.

“I’m not sure we should press the panic button every single time a man of his age has the sniffles,” Mark Sonderup, the vice-chairman of the South African Medical Association, told the newspaper. “But unfortunately we have to accept that simple health matters for a person of that age can turn very serious, very quickly.”

Mr. Mandela’s hospitalization quickly dominated news coverage in South Africa, where most have been focused on the upcoming African National Congress national convention this month. Becoming leader of the ANC is a nearly automatic ticket to becoming the president.

At Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church, where the image of a gray-suited Mr. Mandela now appears in the stained-glass window, worshippers prayed for his health and the country’s future Sunday. “Every person has got his time,” churchgoer Lerato Mhlala said. “Someone must come in and take his place as well.”

 

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