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Relief and worry over Mandela

Andrew Harding | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011

The mood inside today's crowded hospital news conference seemed fairly upbeat.

The surgeon general was cracking jokes. The dignitaries were smiling - all except for Nelson Mandela's grandson, Mandla, who looked like someone who'd been through a tough few days.

What did we learn? In medical terms, a very broad outline has emerged. We now know that Mr Mandela has been treated for an "acute respiratory infection" - bronchitis? pneumonia? No-one is saying - and that he's responded well.

A medical panel has judged him "stable" enough to return home. He is able to breathe unaided and to talk. But he will be monitored closely and still needs home-based care.

As for why it took so long to reveal any official information - we got a surprisingly big and humble mea culpa from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who acknowledged that "we could have handled this matter differently" and promised to be upfront about Madiba's health in the future.

Members of the Nelson Mandela Foundation told me afterwards that a proper system was now in place to ensure there would not be any more long silences - filled almost inevitably by speculation and rumour.

So do we believe what we've been told?

The look on Mandla's face suggested to me that we probably know only part of the truth. Fair enough, perhaps. But the bland phrase "routine tests" which was the official line for days, seems to me a little disingenuous given what we now know - or think we know.

For now then, the alarm bells have been switched off. But the worries linger.

I've just been for a walk through central Johannesburg to ask people for their reactions. Almost everyone I spoke to used the word "father" when talking about Madiba. A blind man called Daniel, shaking a tin on a street corner, said simply "he means freedom to me".


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