Mandela's health in question as ANC begins critical debate 74-year-old leader called exhausted

February 18, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In the midst of a critical debate on the shape of South Africa's future government, Nelson Mandela has been sidelined, suffering from exhaustion.

The African National Congress (ANC) said yesterday that Mr. Mandela, its president and driving personality, has canceled most of his appointments on doctor's orders to get a much-needed rest.

The 74-year-old black leader has been forced to take time off as his organization debates a controversial proposal for a coalition government that would include the ANC and the ruling National Party.

Members of the ANC's 90-member national executive committee are holding an important meeting this week to decide whether the anti-apartheid organization will back the concept of power-sharing.

ANC hard-liners strongly oppose any sort of future collaboration with the present white-minority government that devised apartheid.

Mr. Mandela attended the first day of the three-day meeting Tuesday, according to ANC spokesmen, but left his deputies to complete the job of selling the power-sharing idea to opponents on the executive committee.

Carl Niehaus, an ANC spokesman, said Mr. Mandela was not ill but was exhausted from a tough schedule of meetings, speeches and travel that would wear down a man half his age.

The sudden sidelining of the aging leader raised the unsettling question of how long he would be able to continue in the rigorous role as the leading force for democracy in South Africa.

It also raises questions about how the drive for democracy will fare if he is unable to continue at the helm.

Analysts say the fragile reform process would become much more vulnerable without Mr. Mandela's stature and strength, especially since the process requires compromises with the present government that are distasteful to many of his followers.

"From a symbolic point of view, Mr. Mandela is extraordinarily important," said Sampie Terreblanche, political analyst at the University of Stellenbosch, which produced many of South Africa's white leaders.

"If he died within the next year, the situation would be even more vulnerable than it already is. They must really look after him," he said, referring to the ANC.

Although he has consistently maintained a heavy schedule, Mr. Mandela's health has been good since his release from prison three years ago by President F. W. de Klerk.

"It has been three years since his release, and his symbolic status has remained very high, internally and externally. He is a binding force," said Mr. Terreblanche.

Mr. Mandela has confirmed his support for the arrangement, which he calls a government of national unity rather than power-sharing.

His own role is important in selling such an arrangement to ANC supporters, most of whom want nothing to do with the whites who once enforced apartheid but now support reform.

Tom Lodge, a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, said Mr. Mandela is not shoving the agreement down the ANC's throat since he prefers to operate by consensus.

"But I do think his moral authority is important in making it acceptable to those who disagree," he said.

Mr. Mandela gained the status of a legend during his years as a political prisoner who rejected government offers to free him if he would renounce the anti-apartheid struggle.

Now, he is perhaps the one person who can hold together the varied elements of his broad-based organization -- from its hard-line Communists to the moderate proponents of power-sharing with the present white-minority government.

It is widely believed the ANC would win a democratic election on the strength of massive black support, but some people within the organization, including Mr. Mandela, believe it should extend an olive branch to whites and minority black parties by offering to include them in a future government, at least for a few years.

Some analysts say the ANC would suffer badly as a political entity if its legendary leader were to disappear from the scene before the process of electing and installing a new government is complete.

Mr. Mandela himself plays down his own role and stresses that the ANC has many capable leaders who could steer the organization and the country into the future.

He and others frequently mention Cyril Ramaphosa, a former labor leader who is the ANC's No. 3 official and its chief negotiator.

But neither Mr. Ramaphosa nor any other political figure in the country has Mr. Mandela's emotional appeal to black voters or his ability to steer them into the future.

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