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Remembering Mandela: On media, politics and death

Filmmaker Danny Schechter reflects on Nelson Mandela's death.

Last updated: 06 Dec 2013 13:23
Danny Schechter

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits MediaChannel.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.
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The memory of Nelson Mandela and the nation father figure he was will live on [AP]

For nearly six months, a media death watch surrounded Nelson Mandela like African vultures swooping over their next meal. Somehow the prospect and rituals of death were higher on the news agenda than the way his life has been lived and the techniques he used to survive so long, avoid bloody conflicts and reconcile warring interests.

How he achieved what he did seems to be less interesting than family controversies and speculation about his illness.

Media Tenor, a global monitoring firm, reported last July that coverage from global TV news broadcasts on Nelson Mandela had shrunk.

Follow our coverage of Mandela's death and legacy

For the other global media still interested in Nelson Mandela, many turned away from the negative issue, namely his health being critical, and began to focus more on his legacy and family. The Mandela family received "dire media" coverage in South Africa, the UK, Canada and Australia during July and continued to be topical on South Africa's TV news.

"Fortunately, the negative coverage affecting his family's reputation has not affected Nelson Mandela's own media image," a representative from the firm said .

Now that he has died, the floodgates of admiration have opened with anchors and experts, friends and family members singing his praises, in a nonstop mediathon. Of course, in death, he, like other leaders who have constant global recognition, gets the full saviour treatment, the very type of reverence that he often rejected, as he tried and often failed to shift the praise-singing onto his comrades and the movements they led.

Yet a celebrity-obsessed media that so often focuses on the so-called "great men of history" has little patience with a more populist bottom-up interpretation of how change actually happens. It revolves around and patronises insiders and people of power, not community activists in shanty towns.

In some ways, Mandela himself sensed that the public wanted him to play that role, and he often did. He seemed to go back and forth, with protestations of humility and, at the same time, a finely refined sense of how he could influence the high and the mighty by calling them on the phone, or asking them for favours and donations.

He was a democrat in his soul but also a manipulator when he felt that was the only way to get what he felt the country needed. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was known for his dapper attire and smart suits. He was even briefly a ballroom dancer.

Later, he appropriated an Indonesian style to showcase his distinctive collection of Madiba shirts.

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He mingled with many corporate bigs, often squeezing them for contributions to his charities. Although falsely denounced as a communist by the Afrikaner right, he actually enjoyed moving in royalty even though he was not of the royal tribal lineage that many thought he was.

His ANC comrade Walter Sisulu, who was jailed with him on Robben Island, groomed him because he "looked like" a prince. Later, some of his aides were embarrassed when he began calling Queen Elizabeth "Liz". She apparently liked it.

Many in the elite were in awe of his larger-than-life presence and flattered him when he frawned on them while often dismissing his heartfelt appeals for economic justice and the end of poverty. He enjoyed the suites as well as the streets.

It's not surprising that most of the obits that praise his political skills avoid talking about the serious compromises he made on economic issues by going along with market-based "solutions" that kept vast inequalities and poverty in place.

This is not to minimise his negotiating talent. I was very impressed by an analysis comparing Mandela's emphasis on being inclusive with Egyptian President Morsi's disregard for political realities that isolated him and led to his removal from power. Mandela blocked similar coup attempts in South Africa.

I was invited to South Africa as a documentary filmmaker to cover the making and the meaning of the epic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom".

That's when I began speaking to many of the people who knew Mandela best. What I found was personal admiration for him mixed with tortured regrets that more could have been done to curb poverty or prevent corruption.

Those conversations and research based on the many films I made there, led me to write a book, Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela at the request of the movie's producer who knows well that no movie can tell the whole story.

I sought out what is not widely known and many of the lesser appreciated contradictions that are often more fascinating those that make the headlines.

In public, it's hard to find anyone - black or white - who is aggressively hostile to Mandela. The whole country is enamoured with him and is in mourning over his passing, often in a celebratory fashion.

The growing crowds, outside his house. especially of young people, the so-called "born frees" born after Mandela's election, led the mourning.

An article in the Mail & Guardian described the scene:

"Within an hour the crowd grew to several hundred people, and the songs equally grew in strength, and changed tone. The national anthem was replaced by struggle songs and chants, with the occasional "Viva Madiba!" thrown in. […] They wanted their children to have a lasting memory of the night that a giant of a man, a father of the nation, passed, one such couple said."

The article carries a poignant title: "Tata Mandela, how do we say goodbye?"

And so it is, and so it will be. His stature will only grow beyond the statues that seem to be proliferating in his honour. He had tried to discourage that but no one listened to the leader on this issue. He was also commonly called "the old man".

Mandela fathered the "New South Africa" and in a culture that still reveres its elders, he will not easily be forgotten. It will be a while before less emotional and more analytical assessments are made about what he was, and was not, able to accomplish.

As he said, "There is no easy walk to freedom."

News Dissector Danny Schechter, an American activist turned journalist, who first visited South Africa in 1967, directed six documentaries on Mandela. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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