The Who2 Blog

Is Nelson Mandela Losing His Memory?

(Published December 7, 2009)

Is Nelson Mandela losing his mental capacities — and is it being kept quiet? 

Bill Keller‘s feature on the movie Invictus (with Morgan Freeman as Mandela) drops this odd nugget in passing:

As president Mr. Mandela could be surprisingly approachable… But since stepping down in 1999, and especially since his memory began to fail him, he has become more reclusive, protected by a staff that worries he might embarrass himself.

“Since his memory began to fail him?”

Keller drops it like it’s no biggie, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it. How bad is it if his staff is worried he might “embarrass himself”?

We don’t know. Web and news searches for “Nelson Mandela” plus a variety of terms like “memory loss,” “Alzheimers,” “failing memory,” etc, turn up nothing but unrelated stories and wisecracks in letters from Pompano Beach. If Mandela’s memory loss is serious, it isn’t very public.

Bill Keller is executive editor of The New York Times and a bit of a Mandela insider: he was the paper’s bureau chief in Johannesburg from 1992-95, and his wife, Emma Gilbey, wrote a 1993 biography of Winnie Mandela. So presumably, Keller should know.

Nelson Mandela is now 91. He retired from public life, in self-described good health, in 2004. He spoke, with notes, at a 90th birthday celebration last year in London. He seemed fine then, if not strong. (He also met the Queen.)

The occasion could be a little reminiscent of Ronald Reagan rallying to speak at his own 83rd birthday celebration, despite being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. But there seems to be no firm indication that Mandela was in that bad a way yet, or has that kind of prognosis.

Mandela also made a surprise appearance at an ANC political rally this April — being driven around in a golf cart and “looking increasingly frail” is how The Times of London described him. He didn’t speak but had a pre-recorded address played for the crowd.

Mandela did make this comment at the birthday rally last year:

“We say tonight after nearly 90 years of life, it’s time for new hands to lift the burdens. It’s in your hands now, I thank you.”

Which does sound like a man who is stepping away from public view. But is he losing his mind? For now, Keller’s little hint will have to stand on its own.

(Image supplied by WENN)

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