I just called my pal Colin, a TV news cameraman who has been parked for days outside the Pretoria hospital where Nelson Mandela is being treated. I said, can you please tell me when the old man is going to die so that I can sort out some deadlines with the Spectator? He said, sorry, nobody here knows anything.
Then we started talking about how much this is costing world media, especially the American TV networks. Colin is under contract to one such network. Three years ago, the Americans hired two flats overlooking Pretoria’s Union Buildings and ‘filled them with millions of bucks’ worth of gear’ in preparation for the funeral that never happens. They have also bought the loyalty of several householders in Qunu, Mandela’s ancestral village, and placed several of his old friends, experts and family members on retainer. (Said retainers are probably expensive, because Mandela’s offspring have a shrewd sense of the value of their family brand.)
Every time Mandela goes into hospital, large numbers of Americans (up to 50) are flown here to take up their positions, and the South African network is similarly activated. Colin, for instance, travels to Johannesburg, hires a car and checks into a hotel, all on the network’s ticket. Since last December, he’s probably spent close to 30 days (at $2000 a day, expenses included) cooling his heels at various poolsides. And he has yet to shoot a single frame.
As Colin says, this could be the worst disaster in American media history, inter alia because all these delays are destroying the story. When the old man finally dies, a lot of punters are going to yawn and say, Mandela died? Didn’t that already happen a year ago?
Meanwhile, the military doctors tending the royal bed are saying absolutely nothing useful about the old man’s condition. All we know with certainty this afternoon is that Colin has been ordered to stand down again — perhaps because his employers are hemorraging so badly that they’re likely to die before Mandela dies.