All week President Nelson Mandela has talked about the condition of his prostate, his lungs, his heart, even his liver.
All this has been in an effort to convince many of his fellow countrymen and women that their latest bout of succession jitters is unwarranted.
For the past three weeks, newspapers have been filled with rumors, the origins of which are unknown, that the 77-year-old Mandela had suffered a heart attack. Subsequently, the financial markets have see-sawed wildly and the South African rand has dropped about 10 percent against the dollar.
While several analysts said the Mandela factor was by no means the only reason the currency plummeted, it has now become almost a ritual that the Johannesburg Stock Exchange catches a cold even when Mandela has not so much as sneezed. Thus have investors, and in particular South Africa’s white business establishment, signaled their continuing worry about what comes in the post-Mandela era.
Since white minority rule ended nearly two years ago and Mandela was elected the first black president, he has made national reconciliation the cornerstone of his presidency. But many whites are not sure that other leaders in the ruling African National Congress are as dedicated to reconciliation. Will Mandela’s successor, most likely deputy president and heir-apparent Thabo Mbeki, invest the same energy in national reconciliation, which has become a virtual shield protecting whites from black retribution for a half-century of apartheid? Will a new president command the same patience from blacks, creating the necessary space for an incremental transformation, rather than a precipitous redistribution of wealth?
Largely because of this anxiety, rumors of Mandela’s illness persist although, according to Mandela’s doctors, the president is in extraordinary health for a man who turns 78 in July, and who maintains a punishing schedule in which 18-hour days are common. “President Mandela has been fully assessed and found to be extremely well,” his doctors announced last week after Mandel’s checkup.
“His heart condition is satisfactory - there is absolutely no evidence of coronary heart disease. The condition of his lungs is equally excellent. There is no evidence whatsoever of cancer of the prostate.”
White anxiety appears to be directly related to the perceived deterioration in the relationship between Mbeki and the white establishment in general.
Many whites once saw Mbeki, an economist and pipe-smoking former chief diplomat for the ANC, as an unthreatening figure. But since he became Mandela’s deputy, Mbeki has repeatedly raised the issue of black empowerment and has warned often that reconciliation is meaningless without improvement in the lives of blacks, half of whom are jobless.