JOHANNESBURG – South African President Jacob Zuma said he found Nelson Mandela "in good shape and in good spirits" Monday but a video of his encounter with the ailing anti-apartheid icon belies those cheery words, showing him with a vacant look on his face.
It's been more than three weeks since Mandela was released after a 10-day stay in the hospital, the third time in five months that he was hospitalized for a recurring lung infection.
"We saw him, he's looking very good, he's in good shape," Zuma told the South African Broadcasting Corp. on the doorstep of Mandela's Johannesburg home. "We had some conversation with him, shook hands, he smiled, as you can see him, that he's really up and about and stabilized. We're really very happy, we think that he's fine."
But the SABC video shows Mandela in an armchair, his head propped up by a pillow, his legs on a footrest and covered by a blanket, looking grey-skinned and unsmiling with his cheeks showing what appear to be marks from a recently removed oxygen mask.
Zuma jokes and laughs with two officials of the governing African National Congress, some Mandela family members and the former president's medical team while Mandela stares straight ahead, unresponsive. Zuma tries to hold Mandela's hand but, given his lack of response, ends up covering it with his own.
"Smile, smile," Mandela is urged as one of his grandsons grabs a cell phone to take a picture. Mandela attempts a weak smile but, as the flash goes off, he closes his eyes and purses his lips. Mandela is known to dislike camera flashes, as his eyes are sensitive after years of working in the glare of a limestone quarry when he was imprisoned on Robben Island.
Mandela does not appear to speak during the televised portion of the visit, except for an "Oh," that could have been a gasp for breath and one word to his medical doctor.
Monday's video likely will cause more concern for the many South Africans who revere Mandela as the founder of a free South Africa and who were buoyed by the aging icon's release from hospital and family statements that he is doing as well as can be expected, for a 94-year-old. Mandela's 95th birthday is in July.
Zuma is expected to run for re-election next year and Mandela's name is the biggest drawing card of his ruling African National Congress party.
Mandela's forgiving spirit and belief in racial reconciliation helped hold South Africa together when it came to the brink of civil war before elections in 1994. The Nobel Peace laureate who was imprisoned for 27 years by the racist white regime became the first democratically elected president of South Africa that year.