Reports of Zambian President's death prove to be exaggerated

The South African President had the unusual duty yesterday of mourning the death of the President of Zambia with a minute's silence, then hours later wising him a speedy recovery.

President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa would have been an embarrassing corpse. The Zambian leader, who chairs a bloc of southern African nations, collapsed with a stroke on Sunday and was rushed to hospital in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh just as he prepared to confront Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe at an African summit. Mr Mugabe's most vocal opponent on the continent was transferred to a Paris military hospital for further treatment after reportedly suffering a brain haemorrhage. Egyptian doctors said he was in a "semi-coma".

Yesterday morning, a South African radio station reported that the 59-year-old Zambian President had died in Paris, setting radio and television stations buzzing around the world. One Johannesburg newspaper ran the front page headline, "Stroke kills Zambian president".

There was talk of a state funeral being organised within five days. Zambian senior cabinet ministers were reported to be closeted in urgent meetings with army chiefs. Then the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, announced that he had been informed by the executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community that Mr Mwanawasa had passed away. He interrupted a remembrance ceremony held to honour Zimbabwean migrants killed by racist attacks in South Africa to hold a minute's silence. South Africa's main opposition party sent condolences.

But about an hour later, the Zambian Vice-President, Rupiah Banda, already being tipped as the President's successor in the South African media, said rumours of the President's death were greatly exaggerated. "The President had [a] satisfactory night at the Percy military hospital in France. The news reports ... are not true."

The information minister, Mike Mulongoti, his voice shaking with emotion, went on Zambian radio to announce: "We spoke with the people at Mwanawasa's bedside a few minutes ago, including his wife, Maureen, who said [he] was still alive and breathing." Mr Banda said the President was in a "stable" condition in intensive care receiving treatment for hypertension. "The doctors attending are happy with progress he has made so far and his condition remains stable," Mr Banda added.

Mr Mulongoti, the government spokesman, urged the South African media, which had been the source of the global false alarm, to exercise restraint, and condemned the "false and malicious rumours". He added: "The stories are coming from South Africa and have now spread to the rest of the world. I am appealing to the South African press to restrain themselves as they are causing anguish and pain to the Zambian people."

Mr Mbeki's office retracted his earlier statement and "regretted the "misunderstanding". The Foreign Ministry said: "On behalf of the government and on his own behalf, [Mr Mbeki] wishes President Mwanawasa a speedy recovery."

Victims of the premature obituary

Mark Twain

It is generally believed that Twain's remark that "the report of my death was an exaggeration", was made after reading his own obituary. But it was actually in response to a journalist who, in 1897, got the writer mixed up with his cousin. Twain's passing was prematurely announced a second time, when in 1907 The New York Times published a piece speculating that a yacht he was sailing on may have been lost at sea.

Jimmy Savile and Michael Heseltine

The satirist Chris Morris has never been a stranger to controversy. But on Radio 1 in 1994 he announced (as a joke) the death of the TV personality Sir Jimmy Savile, as well as suggesting that the Tory politician Michael Heseltine had died after a heart attack. Jerry Hayes, an MP at the time, was duped into paying his tributes on-air. Needless to say, Morris was swiftly suspended by the BBC.

Ernest Hemingway

The American writer was on safari in Africa in 1954 when a plane carrying him and his wife crashed in the bush. A plane sent to rescue them crashed on take-off after picking them up. Hemingway suffered severe injuries but survived. Obituaries were printed in several newspapers across the world – obituaries which Hemingway reportedly read on a terrace in a Venice café a few days later.

Toby Green

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