The first new video images of Nelson Mandela in nearly nine months show him blank-faced and unresponsive, mobbed by camera-flashing relatives and an eager group of posing politicians from South Africa’s ruling party.
The images, televised nationally on a state broadcaster on Monday, add fuel to a growing debate over the political and commercial use of the Mandela image. With an election looming next year, the ruling African National Congress is keen to prove its intimate connection to the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero, even though he is feeble and ailing.
In a political spat this month, the ANC angrily denounced the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, for publishing a photo of Mr. Mandela embracing an anti-apartheid politician, Helen Suzman, whose political party is considered a predecessor of the DA.
In the brief images shown by the state broadcaster, Mr. Mandela seems frozen-faced and vacant in expression, incapable of giving his famous smile or even responding to conversation.
Sitting in an armchair in his home with his legs wrapped in a blanket, he stares bleakly ahead as he is surrounded by ANC leaders and medical staff.
President Jacob Zuma, posing in a chair next to Mr. Mandela, grins broadly and gives the thumbs-up gesture. But when he reaches for Mr. Mandela’s hand, there is no response from the former president, who grips the arm-rest of his chair as Mr. Zuma grabs his hand.
Mr. Mandela says no audible words in the 90-second video report. He opens his mouth briefly at one point in the video, possibly to gasp for breath. Marks are visible on his face – reportedly the signs of recent use of an oxygen mask.
At one point, when a camera flashes in his face, he closes his eyes and purses his lips. Photographers are normally asked not to use the flash on their cameras when taking pictures of Mr. Mandela because his eyes are sensitive. They were damaged during his many years of working in a lime quarry in the blazing sun on Robben Island when he was a political prisoner.
Mr. Mandela has been in hospital three times in the past five months for ailments including a recurring lung infection.
The ANC-led government has refused to identify the hospital in Pretoria where Mr. Mandela was treated, saying that his “privacy” must be protected from any media intrusion.
After demanding privacy for Mr. Mandela for months, it was unclear why the ANC leaders decided to bring along a television camera for their visit to the Mandela residence in Johannesburg. The resulting images were an invasion of privacy, according to many South Africans who commented on the video on Twitter.
Mr. Mandela has always considered himself a loyal ANC member, even after his political retirement in 1999. In the last national election in 2009, at the age of 90, he gamely struggled to climb up the steps onto a rally stage to support Mr. Zuma’s campaign. Critics said the ANC had jeopardized his health by bringing him to its rallies.
The images broadcast on Monday are the first new video of Mr. Mandela since he was visited by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last August.
The state broadcaster, SABC, declared that Mr. Mandela was “relaxed” and “in good spirits,” while Mr. Zuma announced that the former president is “up and about” and “looking very good.” But the video clearly contradicted those words.
SABC is often criticized for its loyalty to the ruling party. Lindiwe Mazibuko, parliamentary leader of the DA party, said the broadcaster should be “utterly ashamed” of itself for showing the Mandela images.
There is widening debate in South Africa over the question of control over the Mandela name and image. Two of his grandchildren have launched a reality television show, called Being Mandela, along with a fashion company called “Long Walk to Freedom” (the name of Mr. Mandela’s autobiography) to sell a range of Mandela-branded T-shirts.
Mr. Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe and one of his granddaughters have founded a wine label, “House of Mandela,” despite criticism from some family members who say that the Mandela name should not be associated with alcohol.
In the most divisive feud, Makaziwe Mandela and other family members are embroiled in a legal battle against a long-time Mandela friend in a fight for control of two companies that supervise $2.8-million in royalty revenue from Mandela-branded artworks.