When Nelson Mandela goes

Yesterday we tweeted my friend Herman Wasserman’s guide to the media on how to cover Nelson Mandela’s hospitalization (it’s good advice if you’re a journalist). This morning I asked Nathan Geffen, a South African media activist (and author) whether we could republish here his post on the “when Mandela goes” meme. Geffen is one of the key people behind the groundbreaking, very non-mainstream, community news portal GroundUp. Here’s the post:

Guest Post by Nathan Geffen

Madiba is in hospital. Spokespeople assure us he is doing well. That he is old, sick and likely to die soon are avoided or dealt with euphemistically. The tip-toeing around Mandela’s mortality encourages the idiotic myth-making by self-styled experts on South Africa who don’t live here. Some of them are downright ridiculous suggesting that the country will unravel when Mandela dies. A version of this myth was written on Monday by David Blair in the British newspaper The Telegraph. He wrote “For as long as he is around, South Africans believe their present leaders will be slightly more likely to stick to the principles of the nation’s rebirth 18 years ago. In a way that foreigners can’t really grasp, Mandela still underwrites that settlement with all its promise and idealism.”

Well I’m South African and I don’t believe this. Frankly, Mr Blair, I suspect you’re talking nonsense. Mandela retired from politics several years ago. He has had hardly any role in recent South African politics. Our country holds together not because of the Nelson Mandela of today, but because of what he did over his lifetime which is now sadly but inevitably winding down. It also holds together because we have a more or less functioning constitutional democracy and innumerable countervailing forces: powerful unions, powerful civil society activist organisations, powerful opposition parties, some good people still left in the ANC, powerful businesses, some effective courts, a free and vibrant media. There are no guarantees: South Africa might descend into the abyss — and another term of office for President Zuma increases the risk of this — but I think it unlikely. Nevertheless, whether or not South Africa thrives, unravels or — the most likely scenario — just continues to bumble along, is not dependent on Nelson Mandela staying alive.

Nelson Mandela is a great person, one of the greatest of the last 100 years. Despite growing up in a rural homestead with limited opportunities he invested heavily in his education and became the most respected African ever. He spent 27 years in prison to defend his principles but forgave his captors and used his leadership to mitigate South Africa’s civil war. He helped defeat apartheid and helped South Africa become a reasonably stable albeit flawed democracy. History is not the product of a single person’s actions, but it is conceivable that without Mandela, South Africa’s political settlement might not have been achieved and the country would have descended into chaos. Yet Mandela is human and he has also made mistakes. As with all great people who have had to make many very difficult decisions throughout their lives, sometimes he made big and bad mistakes: his handling of AIDS in the 90s and his passing the baton to Thabo Mbeki were two of his bigger ones. He realised the former, apologised for it, and appeared to have realised the latter. He made amends by confronting Mbeki’s AIDS denialism which helped change government’s AIDS policies. His decision to turn the ANC to armed struggle will always be controversial. Overall his greatness far, far outshines his errors.

But Nelson Mandela is mortal. He’s also old. He is 94 and in obviously very frail health. It might be 10 years from now, 5 years, in 2013 or even in the next few weeks, but he is absolutely, unequivocally, unavoidably going to die, as are we all.

Moreover, most very old people begin to lose their mental faculties. It’s by time someone said it publicly. After all, most of us talk about it privately: Madiba is losing his mental faculties. Only those closest to him know how seriously he is losing his faculties but we all know, from several public clues, that there is some loss and it appears to be quite serious. It is sad, but there should be no shame in this and no embarrassment. It does not tarnish his legacy. What’s happening to him is a natural part of life and death and it’s by time we said and accepted it, openly, publicly and without euphemism. The currently living Nelson Mandela no longer has any substantial influence on South African politics. On the other hand, his lifetime’s work and our memories of what he has achieved have a profound influence on South Africa and the world. They will continue to do so long after he has died.

The myth-making about Mandela, the continued suggestion by the ANC that he’s infallible and superhuman and the pretence by the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, that it carries his mantle, coupled with the failure to critically discuss and debate his lifetime’s ideas, actions, successes and failures, does him a disservice. It reduces his life to feel-good quotes and excuses all kinds of bad behaviour done in his name. This dehumanises Mandela and actually means we fail to learn from his achievements.

It is sad when people we love become old, frail and ill. It is sad when they die, but it is an unavoidable and necessary part of life, of how the human species works. Death is tragic and inevitable but it’s also ok, because there isn’t an alternative.

It is insulting to Mandela to suggest that his lifetime’s work will unravel at the end of his lifetime. Let us give Madiba the respect he deserves by recognising his humanity, his frailty, his decline, his mortality and that life will go on when he dies.

* This is republished (in slightly edited form) with kind permission from GroundUp. You can follow Geffen on Twitter @nathangeffen.


8 thoughts on “When Nelson Mandela goes

  1. Thank you for this excellent post, It is very good to read a calm assessment of such an emotional subject and I think many people who know what they are talking about will agree with you that the idea that Mandela’s death will be the cause and trigger of South Africa’s unravelling is nonsense.
    I wanted to respond here just to give another side of the issue, maybe this reply really belongs on the article by Mr Wasserman, as it concerns the media response to Mandela’s condition, but I’ll put it here anyway.
    As Mr Wasserman says, the simple fact is that Mandela’s death, when it happens, will be the biggest news story for a long time. To give an example: I’m not a BBC employee, but I happen to know the BBC has scheduled almost a fortnight of special programming in the event of Mandela’s death, probably as much or more as the Queen of England will get when she dies. I’m sure it will be slick and professionally produced, moving and sensitive; a proper tribute to a man who has contributed so much not only to his own country but around the world. in other words it will be what everyone, given the unhappy circumstances, would want to see; It will be the right thing.
    However, in order to produce this appropriate coverage, there has to be a plan in place. Where Mr Wasserman’s analysis falls down is that in the case of many media institutions (large SA based and international ones like the BBC, Reuters and AP) it is less of a question of ethics vs public interest, and more of a question of resources and logistics. In the case of what I heard about the BBC plan, most of the coverage will be anchored from several locations in South Africa. No-one in the international media can afford to have large overseas bureaus any more. But at the same time, the number of outlets that need to be filled -that the public expect to be filled- has risen. Scores of staff from the radio, television and the website will be deployed from London to do this. Hotels across the country are being paid a retainer to keep rooms available for people that will do the coverage. Deals have been done with people who own locations that provide good spots to site cameras for TV anchors. In South Africa there are a small number of companies that provide satellite trucks for outside broadcasting. If the BBC doesn’t want to lose out to other media institutions, it has to book them up beforehand. Staff have gone through hours and hours of footage to prepare television and radio packages and films that will be ready to go the moment that the inevitable happens. Attention is paid to Mandela’s health, and if he goes into hospital, those involved in the plan are put on notice that at any moment they could be on a plane to South Africa.
    Many people find this distasteful. I’m told South African staff at the BBC office in Johannesburg have in some cases found it very difficult to participate in the preparations, as they feel (quite understandably) that it is inappropriate to consider someone’s death before it happens. A similar feeling is held by the ANC leadership. They refuse to give information about Mandela’s death because they see it as feeding a morbid obsession with death that the media has. When I was there it was framed very much as an issue of culture. European culture may allow for this, people said to me, but African culture does not. Many people agree. And to a degree it is true that, potentially, some people’s careers will be made if things go according to plan. It is true that journalists are sometimes guilty of feeling pride, even triumph, when others are wrecked by tragedy, and that is a failing that individual journalists have to face up to and deal with in their own conscience. Usually it is said that it was better to tell the world about the event than stay silent, and the pride comes from a dispassionate detachment and a job well done, rather than a revelling in others’ misfortune.
    There is another thing happening here however; Mandela’s inevitable death is being used by someone, but it isn’t the media. Some of these ANC leaders and officials hate the media, they don’t believe that journalists should be allowed to question the actions of the ANC. This friction attributed to cultural attitudes to death plays into their hands, it gives them reasons to shut down communication. It gives them the opportunity to paint the media as “vultures”, an image that will stick in people’s minds long after Mandela is gone. They want to create a suspicion among normal people who love Mandela, even those who work for media institutions, that what the media does is wrong, and is even contrary to South African (read black South African) culture. Its not hard to see how that will hamper the media’s important role in keeping a spotlight shining on this generation of politicians in future.
    Good television or radio, requires planning and forethought in order to come up with something that seems effortless. I think Mandela deserves the tribute he will get when he dies. And instead of feeling anger towards the media I hope that when it happens -among the sadness- South Africans will also feel a bit proud when they see the replays of all the momentous things that Madiba did, interviews with those who knew him and were there, and take that pride into to a future without Mandela.

  2. Geffen, as usual, has driven right to the most important point – that outsiders still only recognise two frames for the South African story, The Miracle and The Calamity. Appreciation of the life of an extraordinary man need not lead to a distorting and fear mongering form of exceptionalism.

  3. Madiba’s death will precipitate a lot of reassessment of his role. It will also precipitate a split in the ANC between irreconcilable allies and policies. Both things will be for the better.

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