Messages of condolences were yesterday quickly replaced by retractions amid rumours that Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa had died.
At the national tribute to victims of xenophobia at the Pretoria City Hall earlier yesterday, South African President Thabo Mbeki called for a moment’s silence in remembrance of the ‘late’ president.
He told the gathering, of which many were journalists, government ministers and international embassy representatives, that he had been informed by a fellow member of the Southern African Development Community that Mwanawasa had passed away.
However, while the Zambian High Commission in Pretoria was quick to respond saying he was alive and in a satisfactory condition in a French hospital, the headlines of his death spread worldwide.
“President Mwanawasa is alive. The news reports by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Sky News and other sources are not true.
“He has continued receiving treatment for hypertension in the Intensive Care Unit and there are no new developments,” high the commission said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement clarifying that Mbeki had been misinformed.
“President Mbeki regrets the misunderstanding; and on behalf of the government and on his own behalf, wishes President Mwanawasa a speedy recovery,” the department said.
Democratic Alliance member Sandra Botha, who was present for the minute’s silence at the tribute and subsequently offered condolences in the form of a statement, quickly retracted it saying it was a misunderstanding.
“It has since come to light that reports of President Mwanawasa’s death were a misunderstanding. We wish Mr Mwanawasa a full and speedy recovery,” she said.
The Star newspaper also ran with news of Mwanawasa death. In its afternoon edition, the front-page story was headlined “Stroke kills Zambian President”.
Zambia’s chief government spokesman Mike Mulongoti has blamed the South African press for fuelling the rumours and appealed to them to “restrain themselves”.
He said Mwanawasa was “alive and stable”.
“The stories are coming from South Africa and have now spread to the rest of the world. I am appealing to the South African press to restrain themselves as they are causing anguish and pain to the Zambian people,” Mulongoti said.
He said as chief government spokesman he had the “official government position” on the matter.
And commenting on reports that all senior army and government officials were locked in urgent meetings, Mulongoti said it was normal government business.
“These are normal briefings and it’s government business as usual,” Mulongoti said.
Mwanawasa was transferred from Egypt to France on Tuesday night after suffering a stroke on Sunday on the eve of an African Union summit.
Press reports around the world had been stating that Mwanawasa died on Thursday morning.
Websites such as “who is who” and the Wikipedia have updated reports of his death and added the date of his death to that of his birth. – Nampa-Sapa