SA holds its breath for Mandela medical

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South Africans of all colours and investors across the globe crossed their fingers yesterday as President Nelson Mandela began three days of tests aimed at quashing rumours that his health is failing.

Mr Mandela, 77, did his best to dismiss fears he might leave office before his term ends in 1999. At the Johannesburg clinic where he was admitted he said: "I am my best doctor and the feeling of well-being is very strong." Nevertheless, he cut short a West Africa trip to fly home for the tests. That and the announcement of the check-up surprised many. Mr Mandela's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, said the tests were "principally to reassure the South African public and the international investment community that he is in good health".

Concern surfaced last month after he addressed parliament. Commentators suggested he looked tired and frail. It was then rumoured he was ill. The gossip sent shivers through the markets and two weeks ago, after reports that Mr Mandela had had a heart attack, the rand began to plummet.

Initial results indicate the fears have not been justified. Timothy Groen, a specialist at the clinic, said blood tests and an electrocardiogram done yesterday showed the President was in good health. "He has the energy of a man half his age," Mr Groen said. True to his workaholic nature, Mr Mandela continued to hold meetings in between tests at the clinic.

Worries over the his well-being are more political than sentimental. The question on everyone's lips is: "What happens after Mandela?" People have tended to personalise the government in the figure of Mr Mandela and attributed the country's relative stability to his presence. People fear that without the glue of his personality and his leadership style, the country could unravel.

Foreign investors worry that without Mr Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) could split into left- and right-wing factions and there could be backsliding over policies such as fiscal discipline, free markets and protection of private property.

The extent to which discussion of Mr Mandela's health has dragged the question of South Africa's future into the open was emphasised by the President last week. In a letter to the Johannesburg Sunday Times, he wrote: "Let me restate the obvious: I have long passed my teens; and the distance to my final destination is shorter than the road I have trudged over the years. What nature has decreed should not generate undue insecurity."

He then expressed unease at being singled out by some for praise at the expense of other important ANC leaders. The real aim of his statement appeared to be to promote his heir apparent, the ANC deputy president, Thabo Mbeki.

He has long been the crown prince. Even before Mr Mandela chose him as his deputy, Mr Mbeki had been groomed in exile to take over as ANC leader by its former president, Oliver Tambo. Nevertheless, Mr Mbeki's mishandling of scandals last year involving the Rev Allan Boesak and the President's estranged wife, Winnie, and his softly-softly approach with Nigeria's military rulers, have not inspired much confidence. Many would prefer Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary-general, to inherit the throne. A former union negotiator, Mr Ramaphosa is viewed as being stronger and more resolute than Mr Mbeki.

The ANC has been trying to play down rumours of Mr Mandela's poor health and fears over the future of the country. It points out that he always said he was going to step down when his term ended.

"The fact is that there is only one person in this century who will be Nelson Mandela. We should not be looking for another and we should not be trying to measure everyone else in terms of Nelson Mandela," said Saki Macozoma, a member of the ANC national executive.

"What we must look forward to is a leadership which will be up to the task of taking over from him."