SPLASHED across page four of Tuesday’s Star newspaper was the headline "Mthatha Airport revamp ‘not linked to Madiba’".
The story centred on a quote from Eastern Cape local government and traditional affairs MEC Mlibo Qoboshiyane, who said of the recent airport upgrade: "We don’t know of any eventuality. What’s happening at the King Sabata Dalindyebo municipality is a part of a broader infrastructure investment." The "eventuality" refers to Nelson Mandela’s death and funeral.
That sentiment was mirrored by Freddy Pilusa, spokesman for Mandla Mandela who, speaking on behalf of the Mvezo chief, grandson of the former president, said: "What’s happening in the Eastern Cape has little to do with the old man and that eventuality."
It’s all palpably untrue, of course, disproved by a quick Google search that reveals, among other things, a May 2012 environmental management plan for the airport upgrade, commissioned for the Eastern Cape department of transport by Terreco Environmental. (http://www.sahra.org.za/sites/default/files/additionaldocs/Mthatha%20Airport_BPs%20EMPR.pdf) (Any industrious hard news reporters out there should put the management plan to the MEC.)
The introduction to that report contains the following: "This is a special circumstances project and it is understood that this project is being undertaken for the provision of infrastructure for the landing of aircraft at Mthatha Airport for a special circumstance which is of national importance and is related to the former president."
Later, on page eight, the report expands on this: "The primary objective is to provide a runway that will allow for air traffic of a more significant nature. That air traffic will be linked to the imminent high-visibility event and need for improved logistics and access to the final destination, Qunu. Significant numbers of heads of state and VIPs will arrive in a very narrow time slot due to this event and use Mthatha Airport as best alternative to the considerable logistical problems posed via road or rail to reach the destination. Mthatha Airport has clearly identified capacity restrictions that can be improved to overcome the risk of clear potential for an international embarrassment."
So, as Harry G Frankfurt would say to the MEC and the chief: bullsh*t. The renovations might serve a range of purposes but central to them is the ailing health of the former president and plans for his funeral.
Why is it that the government feels compelled to mislead South Africans about everything to do with Mandela? It seems incapable of being forthright about anything to do with him, be it his health or the necessary preparations for his death. Perhaps it is just incompetence.
It’s deeply patronising, as if the state sees the public as children who need to be coaxed in the right direction for fear they might break down in hysteria. And it’s ironic too, because those doing the manipulating have generally behaved like children themselves, squabbling and abusing Mandela’s condition for political and financial gain alike.
Here is a radical idea: just be honest. Everyone is desperately upset at Mandela’s condition but, likewise, everyone knows that death is one of the few unifying truths of life. The least Mandela’s political handlers can do is recognise that death, like life, must be embraced. And how you embrace it says everything about you.