Let us understand and not misconstrue the media interest on Madiba, by Vincent Magwenya
The media’s intense focus on the health of ex-president Nelson Mandela (Madiba) should not be seen as mischievous or an overzealous editorial obsession, however fraught this attention may seem to family, friends and political comrades. I will be the first to concede that scenes of reporters and television news crews camping outside Madiba’s homes and the Pretoria Heart Hospital can be overwhelming. Recent accounts of irresponsible reporting do not alleviate this apprehension.
The genesis of this phenomenal interest can be traced back to Madiba himself. To understand this “obsession,” we have to acknowledge the affection Madiba had for the media and the nature of the bond he shared with journalists; a relationship that did not flag from the moment he stepped out of prison through to the formative years of his Presidency, and then later, as an international elder statesman.
Despite spending 27 years in prison, Mandela never lost touch with the power of the media or the influence it has on society. This global icon was the ‘rock star’ above all rock stars, and the media enjoyed unprecedented access to him. Not since Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, had the world witnessed such inspirational leadership; journalists simply loved him. They were awed by the aura of humility and warm charm; this despite his heroic ‘struggle’ credentials and messiah-like status.
I can attest to this. Towards the end of 1993, landing my first job at Reuters in Johannesburg, I rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of local and international newsrooms. We all followed Madiba as he travelled the corners of South Africa during this country’s first democratic election campaign. Madiba knew some of these newsrooms legends by first name. He cajoled and joked with them as if they were his children, colleagues, or friends. He treated everyone in the travelling media corps with unprecedented respect. He was particularly fond of the young, feisty Deborah Patta of 702’s Eye Witness News. He would place his arm around her, like a caring and loving father.
The media reciprocated; he became a subject of sustained editorial interest and a father figure. Journalists enjoyed every moment with him. We called him “Tata” when shouting for attention, a wave, and a smile for our cameras.
I became a first hand witness to Madiba’s media skills. At the start of the Zaire conflict in 1997, between the Congo’s long serving dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila, the international community requested Madiba to broker a peaceful solution. Africa, then, and the world, had just witnessed the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. Fears of another deadly conflict in the Great Lakes Region spurred Madiba into action. He deployed the negotiating skills he had used to usher South Africa through peaceful, sometimes contentious multi-party talks in 1994, to broker a deal.
One of meetings with Kabila took place at Madiba’s house in Houghton. The late Parks Mankahlana, his spokesperson at the time, alerted us to a ‘photo opportunity’ and ‘presser’ with President Mandela and Kabila. By 18h00, cameraman Spokes Mashiyane and I had joined a growing group of local and international media in a stake out in front of Mandela’s house.
The mood as always, was jolly. After all, this was a “Mandela story.” Nothing happened until close to midnight. None of us complained. Mankahlana regularly came out to assure us, “they will be coming out soon guys.” Eventually they did. Madiba commenced with a sincere apology for keeping us waiting. He introduced Kabila and then gave an assurance that all parties involved in the conflict had committed themselves to finding a peaceful solution. He went on to declare, “As you would all appreciate, these are very sensitive matters, I therefore hope you will not probe me further.” He smiled, shook hands with Kabila, wished us a good evening, and turned away to disappear into the glimmer of his sprawling garden.
We all looked at each other in absolute amazement. What was that? Did we just let him get away? We had been waiting for this briefing since 6pm. Satellite feeds were booked and postponed. What did he mean, “he hopes we would not probe him further”? Mankahlana, the astute spokesperson that he was, remained gauging the temperature. After a few seconds of silence, attempting to process what had just happened, we gave up. After all this was Madiba. We trusted him. That was the end of story.
Mandela would continue his cordial relationship with the media, even in vexing times. Media hacks would not stop speculation about his courtship with Graca Machel, widow of the late President Samora Machel of Mozambique. The Madiba touch won the day. At a press briefing, Mandela authoritatively stated, “my culture does not permit me to discuss an issue of this nature with somebody young enough to be my granddaughter.” The “young” female journalist responsible for the question somewhat embarrassingly obliged.
The media never scorned Mandela for breaking protocol either. Not even when he stood up – during a state visit – and did the famous Madiba jive during an electrifying performance by the late Jabu Khanyile of Bayete, at the Royal Albert Hall, in London while alongside him Queen Elizabeth sat stoned faced.
Again, in Hluhluwe, about 300km north of Durban, Madiba did the unthinkable. The occasion was a handover of land – previously designated a game reserve – to a neighbouring community. In attendance were Head of State, Mandela, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Before the ceremony, Madiba, King Zwelithini and Buthelezi were seated at the foyer of the reserve’s lodge. Madiba spotted Walter Dladla, the late AFP photographer. In a moment of excitement, pointing towards King Zwelithini he commanded, “Ah! Walter! Come and meet uNdabezitha.” Walter obliged, reaching out to shake the King’s hand. But, the handshake was not to be. Buthelezi rushed to grab Walter’s hand and chastised him observing that the “King does not shake hands with commoners.”
Recently, in Kenya on a business trip, I discovered the same intense interest. Everybody I met, from waiters to business associates, expressed concern about Madiba’s health. Newspapers in Nairobi led with front-page pictures of tributes outside the Medi-Clinic hospital in Pretoria. The hotel doorman bid me farewell with a wish of “good health to Mr Mandela.”
So, concern for Madiba’s health is more than just obsessional editorial interest. He was a ‘father’ away from home, a global icon, a celebrity, and a beloved elder statesman. Let us celebrate and appreciate his special relationship with the media, historically, now and in the future. Let us cherish the shared appreciation of a free media, and dignity he bestowed on those who practice it. Madiba’s health is, and will remain an issue of global public interest.
Vincent Magwenya who is CEO of Magna Carta PR, retired from active journalism. He writes in his personal capacity.
Issued by: Magna Carta
Contact Person: Hilary Macaulay