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S. African Leader Under Fire After Awkward Visit With Mandela

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In South Africa, controversial images of a frail and ashen Nelson Mandela being visited by South Africa's current president aired on national television this week. Some people claimed it was a political publicity stunt.

The footage is fueling fresh debate about what is proper and what constitutes invasion of privacy regarding the ailing, 94-year-old former president and anti-apartheid legend.

President Jacob Zuma, accompanied by two other top officials of the governing ANC party, visited Mandela at his Johannesburg home on Monday.

Mandela was recently discharged from the hospital where he was treated for pneumonia and a lung infection. After the apparently brief encounter, the South African leader told the nation that Mandela was doing well.

"The doctors are happy. He's looking very good. He's in good shape. We had some conversation with him, shook hands, he smiled. He's really up and about — and stabilized. We are very happy. He's fine," Zuma said.

Looking Bewildered

The images of a bewildered Mandela suggested otherwise.

He was sitting up in an armchair surrounded by his medical team, two grandsons, the president and the ANC bigwigs, all of whom were apparently joking and laughing. Mandela did not join in, but Zuma stood by the medical assessment.

"The doctors' report corresponded with his own appearance as we saw him. So we're very happy about it," Zuma said.

When one of the Mandela grandsons took a cellphone flash photograph, the Nobel peace laureate visibly winced, blinked and closed his eyes — as if he was in pain.

Doctors say Mandela's eyes are extremely sensitive because of years of working amid the glare of a limestone quarry when he was a political prisoner on Robben Island.

South Africans have taken to social networks, mobile phone texts, newspapers and television to criticize the broadcast as exploitative and undignified. Redi Tlhabi took calls and texts on her show on Radio 702.

"Of course and obviously we are going to talk about images of Nelson Mandela in our open line," Tlhabi said. "There is an outcry in some quarters, and in some other quarters, hey, it's justified or justifiable, and there was nothing wrong with it."

One text read, "Redi, I get that [Mandela] is old, that he's an ANC icon and poster child for the organization. But I get the impression that he was not aware of his surroundings and was used as a showpiece, almost like a medieval circus act."

Many callers and texters were quite angry, while others were forgiving. But most were uncomfortable, asking whether this is the proper way to treat a frail, sick and elderly Mandela.

The words that cropped up most frequently were "disrespect," "intrusion," "invasion," "privacy" and "PR stunt." Some South Africans have accused Zuma and the ANC party of playing politics with an eye on elections next year.

Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesman, jumped to the party's defense, referring to Mandela by his clan name, Madiba.

"Madiba, an icon of all South Africans, an icon of the world, an icon of the ANC. We don't think we have done a wrong thing by sharing this icon with the world," he said.

But Guido Piras, filling up his car at a gas station, says he thinks Mandela was used as a puppet.

"I think it's quite depressing," he said. "I think he's elderly. He's a man with a lot of dignity, and he should be left alone."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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