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First the good news: Nelson Mandela is in reasonably good health for someone who is 91.
So the bad news is not so bad: Mandela — the icon of African liberation — will withdraw almost entirely from public life in order to rest and spend time with his family.
The announcement by the Nelson Mandela Foundation was made to squelch speculation that Mandela was gravely ill.
"Don't call me, I will call you," quipped South Africa’s first black president when he formally retired five years ago, but Mandela is in such demand and he supports so many causes that he continued to attend political rallies, meet dignitaries and celebrities visiting South Africa. Mandela has appeared increasingly frail, needing assistance to walk and sometimes appearing a bit confused.
Now Mandela has "decided to cut back his engagements even further and spend more time with his family," said Professor Jakes Gerwel, chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The statement came after a week of rumors in South African political and media circles that the anti-apartheid leader was in hospital and possibly near death.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton share a joke as she visits the Nelson Mandela foundation in Johannesburg, August 7, 2009. (Denis Farrell/Reuters)
The sensitive subject is rarely discussed openly, although occasional controversies erupt around the plans for his funeral and the local and international TV coverage it will attract.
The Mandela Foundation took the unusual step of issuing a rebuttal of the reports Friday.
"There has been a great deal of speculation recently about the state of Mr Mandela's health, to the extent where rumors have even been spread that he is extremely ill," Gerwel said in a statement released by the foundation. "The fact is that Mr Mandela is as well as anyone can expect of someone who is 91 years old and who has lived an active and demanding life as he has. He obviously needs to rest more than he has in the past, and indeed to do the things that he enjoys in his well-deserved retirement."
Gerwel added that Mandela has always been transparent about his health, for example by making a public announcement in 2001 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"People everywhere can therefore be assured that Mr Mandela and his family will continue this trend and will keep the public informed should there be any significant deterioration in his health. In the meantime, we appeal to all concerned to respect Mr Mandela's privacy and that of his family. The endless speculation often leads to intrusive questioning of those around him," said Gerwel.
Further confirmation of Mandela's well-being came from his grandson who said he had breakfast with the former president and there was no cause for alarm. "I've been with my grandfather this morning," said Mandla Zwelivelile Mandela to South Africa's Mail and Guardian Online. "There is nothing wrong with him." He added: "The old man is elderly now and has routine check-ups — and people get excited about it."
The foundation, which protects Mandela's name and schedule, this week chastised Hollywood star Charlize Theron after she reportedly auctioned off a meeting with him at a charity event. Theron sold a trip to the 2010 World Cup, a meeting with Mandela and a kiss from her for $140,000 to a female bidder in San Francisco. The foundation said: "A very strict process needs to followed to get a meeting with Mandela. Not even the charity foundations Mandela himself established are allowed to auction off time with him."