How to stop rumours about leaders’ health

Be candid about what ails them and the worst fears will be pre-empted

In Summary

• Ramaphosa no-show reminiscent of day Moi went missing for several days

Image: OZONE

There was recently speculation in South Africa about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s health after the ANC made an announcement that he had been excused from taking part in a number of activities ahead of the party’s big birthday bash due to an unexplained “emergency”. 

Because there were no details given about the “emergency”, immediately people took to social media to form their own theories as to what was happening. And most of the hypotheses suggested that the President was ill or that he was in a crisis meeting following what appears to be the formation of a new Opposition party by his predecessor.

Following the intense speculation, the President’s spokesperson took to social media to address the rumour. “The President is fine,” he said. “He was never hospitalised, and there was no emergency. He attended a meeting and decided to spend the rest of the day at home ahead of a busy week.” 

The conjecture around the President’s health just because he took a short break from the business of arranging his political party’s birthday bash, reminded me of a time when if Kenyans failed to see their President in the news for a day or two, tongues would start wagging.

One incident I remember in particular happened in January 1995, when for about a week or more, President Daniel arap Moi seemed to disappear off the face of the earth with no official explanations forthcoming.

For 17 years, basically from the day President Moi took power in 1978 until that week, Kenyans had become used to the lead item in their television news being a story about the President’s activities or statements on a particular day.

It didn’t matter how trivial or banal the news of the President was compared to other items on the news agenda, it always led.

President Moi had continued in the footsteps of his predecessor and mentor, President Jomo Kenyatta, who had also led the daily TV news agenda, even if it was just to show that he had been entertained by traditional dancers during “a busy working holiday at the Coast”.

Anyway, back to January 1995. I remember I was working at the Weekly Review at the time and one of my colleagues was working on a story about the President’s whereabouts.

You must remember in those days, there was no social media as we know it now. However, rumours still spread reasonably fast, and depending on who you spoke to about the President, the news was either very bad or nothing to be concerned about.

Mainly, however, there were stories from the political opposition and some diplomats to the effect that he had been struck down by illness and was unable to walk or talk. But none had any proof of these claims. 

Because the government stayed mum about the President, his health and his whereabouts, there were even more rumours doing the rounds.

The speculation only slowed down when suddenly one day, as though nothing had happened, the President appeared with his usual entourage for a choreographed walkabout photo opportunity on the streets of Nairobi.

Even then, people were keenly scanning the videos and pictures to see if they could discern any change in the man that might give a hint as to what had been going on.

The official version that emerged was that he had been on a holiday, which was an unusual enough event for him in the first place. 

However the juicier rumour was that he had been to Israel for a series of medical check-ups and a minor operation. 

This led to queries about who had been in charge of the country while the President was under the weather, but as officially he had never been sick, the queries were not entertained and that was the end of the matter.

Maybe the time has come for governments to be completely candid on issues about the health of elected leaders. After all, the people who elect them have every right to know if they are sick or just taking a break. 

Also, it would demystify leaders and make them appear as human as everyone else.

Follow me on X @MwangiGithahu

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