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People take photos of the giant statue of former president Nelson Mandela, in Mandela Square, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2012.

Denis Farrell/AP

When a South African researcher dared to suggest this week that Nelson Mandela was "losing his mental faculties," it broke a taboo that the ruling party has always zealously guarded.

The African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since Mr. Mandela led it to victory in 1994, has fought to transform him into an infallible legend. It rejects almost any question about his medical ailments or human weaknesses.

This week, with the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero in a Pretoria hospital with a lung infection, the ANC has disclosed almost nothing about his condition. Inquiries about his health are met with terse statements that his "privacy" must be protected.

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Thursday was Mr. Mandela's sixth day of treatment – his longest hospital stay since 2001. Yet the government has kept him under tight security at a military hospital, declining to provide any briefings or access to his doctors.

On Thursday night, the government issued another statement to defend the extraordinary secrecy. It said it cannot even reveal the name of the hospital where Mr. Mandela is being treated, because even this basic information could lead to "interruptions or undue pressure" on his doctors. One local report said the government had secretly moved Mr. Mandela to a different hospital this week, or had lied about his original hospital.

In the same secretive manner, the ANC has refused – even in off-the-record background briefings – to give any hint of its extensive planning for a state funeral when Mr. Mandela dies. To acknowledge publicly that he might some day die is portrayed as an offence to African culture. When a Johannesburg artist in 2010 painted an image of a dead Mr. Mandela undergoing an autopsy, the ANC called it "an insult and an affront to the values of our society."

The mythology surrounding Mr. Mandela was deepened last month when the ANC government placed his image on every banknote in the latest version of the national currency.

The legend grew again on Thursday when President Jacob Zuma unveiled a giant bronze statue of Mr. Mandela in the city of Bloemfontein, where the ANC holds a major conference next week. "We are once again honouring his towering vision and stature," Mr. Zuma declared as he basked in the glory of the seven-metre-tall monument.

Yet despite the ANC's efforts at hagiography, South Africans have long struggled with the question of whether to mythologize Mr. Mandela or humanize him.

Mr. Mandela himself has insisted he is only human and should never be sanctified. "One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint," he wrote in his recent memoir, Conversations with Myself. "I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

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In the spirit of those words, South African researcher and activist Nathan Geffen wrote this week that he was fed up with the ANC's continuing efforts to portray Mr. Mandela as infallible and superhuman.

"Madiba is losing his mental faculties," Mr. Geffen wrote in a South African newspaper, the Cape Times, using the affectionate clan name for Mr. Mandela.

"It's high time someone said it publicly. After all, most of us talk about it privately. … We all know, from several public clues, that there is some loss and it appears to be quite serious. It is sad, but there should be no shame in this and no embarrassment."

Mr. Mandela's physical and mental decline "does not tarnish his legacy," Mr. Geffen wrote. "What's happening to him is a natural part of life and death. … Let us give Madiba the respect he deserves by recognizing his humanity, his frailty, his decline, his mortality and that life will go on when he dies."

While his comments on Mr. Mandela may have broken a taboo, there was no sign that ordinary South Africans were offended. On the website that first published his commentary, Mr. Geffen's views were greeted with almost universal support.

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