JOHANNESBURG – Doctors treating Nelson Mandela said he was in a “permanent vegetative state” and advised his family to turn off his life support machine a week ago, court documents released Thursday showed.
The June 26 court filing shows for the first time just how close the still critically ill but reportedly improving Mandela, 94, came to death.
“He is in a permanent vegetative state and is assisted in breathing by a life support machine,” lawyers said on behalf of 15 Mandela family members, including his wife and three daughters. “The Mandela family have been advised by the medical practitioners that his life support machine should be switched off. Rather than prolonging his suffering, the Mandela family is exploring this option as a very real probability.”
A younger person put on mechanical ventilation — life support — can be weaned off the machine and recover, but that it can be difficult or impossible for an older person. The longer a person is on ventilation, the less the chance of recovery, said the chief executive of the Faculty of Consulting Physicians of South Africa. “It indicates a very poor prognosis for recovery because it means that he’s either too weak or too sick to breathe on his own,” said Dr. Adri Kok, who has no connection to Mandela’s care.
Family lawyer Wesley Hayes said the document was part of an effort to have a court urgently hear a dispute over the final resting place of three of Mandela’s children, who were reburied amid a fierce family dispute Thursday.
Since the document was filed, the South African government, family members and Mandela’s close friends have reported an improvement in his condition.
“He is clearly a very ill man, but he was conscious and he tried to move his mouth and eyes when I talked to him,” Denis Goldberg, one of the men who was convicted with Mandela during the apartheid era, said after visiting him Monday. “He is definitely not unconscious,” Goldberg said, adding Mandela “was aware of who I was.”
Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj refused to comment on the documents, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. “We have indicated from our point of view that based on the doctors’ report, the condition of the former president is critical but stable at this stage,” she said.
On the day the court document was written, President Jacob Zuma reported that Mandela’s health had faltered and canceled a trip to Mozambique. The next day, Zuma reported that Mandela’s condition had “improved during the course of the night.”
“It is not evidence but merely submissions on why a matter should be heard outside court sittings,” he said.
A spokesperson for Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, declined to comment. Earlier in the day, Machel said that while Mandela occasionally has been uncomfortable during his nearly one-month hospitalization, he has seldom been in pain.
“Now we are about 25 days we have been in hospital,” Machel said, giving thanks for the outpouring of emotion from around the world for the Nobel peace laureate. “Although Madiba sometimes may be uncomfortable, very few times he is in pain.”
The former president, who turns 95 later this month, was rushed to hospital June 8 with a recurring lung infection.
Meanwhile, his grandson thrust the increasingly acerbic family feud over the grave sites firmly into the public eye Thursday. Mandla Mandela launched a tirade at close family members who took him to court to force him to return the remains of the three Mandela children to the revered South African leader’s proposed burial ground in Qunu.
Mandla Mandela accused one of his brothers of impregnating his wife and others of being born out of wedlock. He also accused other close relatives of money grabbing.
“In the past few days, I have been the target of attacks from all sorts of individuals wanting a few minutes of fame and media attention at my expense,” he said at a nationally televised news conference.
He accused Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe, of trying to “sow divisions and destruction” in the family. The anti-apartheid hero’s former wife, Winnie, who has regularly visited him in the hospital, “has no business in the matters of the Mandelas,” the grandson added.
He also lashed out at his own brother, Ndaba, for claiming he had been born out of wedlock.
“I don’t want to hang out our dirty linen as a family in public but he knows very well that my father impregnated a married woman of which he is the result of that act,” he said. “As for the remaining of my two brothers, we all know that they are not my father’s children.”
Mandla Mandela, however, said he would not fight a court order to move the remains of his father, uncle and aunt from his estate in Mvezo — the eastern village where he is overseeing large-scale development as the local chief — back to nearby Qunu, Mandela’s childhood home.
The three bodies were exhumed Wednesday after a sheriff forced open the gates of Mandla’s estate with a pickaxe to allow three hearses to enter the property. The graves were moved in 2011, allegedly without the family’s consent.
After forensic tests confirmed the identities, the hearses transported the remains to Qunu on Thursday for reburial, according to police.