JOHANNESBURG — A South African spokesman is denying reports that Nelson Mandela is out of the hospital after being treated for a lung infection.
After spending nearly a week at Pretoria's Mediclinic Heart Hospital, the anti-apartheid icon's story took a strange twist on Friday after AP Television reported that a private ambulance believed to be carrying Mandela had left the premises.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said only that Mandela was in a Pretoria hospital — but perhaps not the same military hospital to which they said he was originally admitted on Saturday.
“I didn’t say which hospital, I said he has not left any hospital," said Maharaj, denying rumors that the 94-year-old had been transported by ambulance. "Whichever one, the speculation, it’s untrue.”
Although Maharaj said earlier this week that Mandela has a lung infection and was responding positively to treatment, officials have been vague about where he is being treated, sparking some criticism from the South African media.
The current mystery is evocative of a time when the government officials carefully shielded Mandela from the world and banned newspapers from printing his words or image out of fears it would rile up South Africans -- which he managed to do anyway -- or inspire worldwide sympathy, which he also did.
Today, Maharaj said, the secrecy is out of consideration for Mandela’s privacy and that of his family. Analyst Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, agreed, describing the secrecy as fair ethically legitimate.
“I think they’ve confirmed with some justification that they’re trying to protect his privacy from a great deal of attention," he said, explaining that Mandela's prior hospital stays had drawn an excess of media attention that made it difficult for hospital staff to work. "I don’t really think that the public really has much of a problem with it."
Mandela, who officially retired from public life in 2004, was previously admitted to a Johannesburg hospital in January 2011 for an acute respiratory infection. He also tested positive for tuberculosis in 1988, during his 27-year imprisonment for fighting racist white rule.
He has made increasingly fewer public appearances in recent years.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born July 18, 1918, became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. He was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to bring an end to apartheid.