Which Narrative of Nelson Mandela’s Life Will Prevail?

International Nelson Mandela Day a moment to consider what his legacy really is

By Danny Schechter Created: July 17, 2011 Last Updated: July 17, 2011
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Nelson Mandela in 2007. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela in 2007. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

At 93, Nelson Mandela is still kicking, inspiring an international day of community service on July 18 in his name. This seems to be an idea that Barack Obama borrowed for similar events in the United States.

While activists and athletes and entertainers, are honoring him by responding to his call for engagement, journalists in the obit departments of the world’s news networks are quietly, even secretly, combing their archives for footage and tributes that will air when he moves on to the next world. They are getting ready and seem to think it will happen sooner rather than later.

I have already seen a program length obit that a major network has ready to go.

Barring some major disaster at the same time, Mandela’s death may receive more visibility than the achievements of his long life.

The question is: which Mandela will be memorialized? Will it be the leader who built a movement and a military organization to fight injustice or a man of inspiration with a great smile whom we admire because of the many years he suffered behind bars?

A ‘Humanized’ Version

Having spent many years as a network producer, I know that the TV News industry’s instinct is to “humanize” the fallen by focusing on their symbolic importance.

The TV News industry’s instinct is to ‘humanize’ the fallen by focusing on their symbolic importance.

He was a symbol of a commitment to forgiving his enemies and promoting reconciliation, a man who was cut off from his family and, in the end, lost a storybook love story with Winnie Mandela after years of painful incarceration.

This approach also involves softening, celebrating and depoliticizing a completely political person who said famously, “the struggle is my life” in the name of presenting someone who anybody can relate to, a big name to admire but not necessarily to learn from or get a balanced picture about. The idea is that Mandela will be likeable if he is like everyone else not that it is his stature as a leader that sets him apart.

In the United States, civil rights icon Martin Luther King has, in the popular media, been reduced to four words, “I have a dream,” as if that was the sum of his thinking and the extent of his contribution. Ask any school kid about him and you will hear a recycling of those famous four words with no context or background.

A Demi-God

In South Africa Mandela has become a demi-God, he is seen as the man who unilaterally freed the country and who virtually walks on water. He is treated more in terms of a heroic myth than as a man who rose to an enormous challenge. He is certainly not a mere politician.

His achievements or lack of them in office are not known while the story of how South Africa ended apartheid is reduced to the waving of his magic wand. There was lots of media attention on pressure from the Boers, not the banks. We heard about the public demands of Chief Buthelezi’s IFP, but not the hidden pressure by the Washington dominated IMF and World Bank.

Little attention was paid to how he saw himself as an organizational man, a “loyal and disciplined” member of the African National Congress and the movements it inspired.

The accent on TV is always on top-down change by the great and the good, not the bottom-up pressure by freedom fighters at the community level who made the country ungovernable with help from armed fighters in exile, UN resolutions, economic and cultural sanctions, pressure by anti-apartheid militants the world over, and even the might of the Cuban army that defeated the South Africans in Angola.

Media likes to personalize the story but its complexities are rarely linked together or told.

Trajectory of Contradictions

Mandela’s own trajectory of contradictions is also not fully appreciated.

He was born to a Royal family in a tribal culture and was, in his early years, an apolitical aristocrat in South African terms who only slowly became a leader of the masses, who moved to the city to become a successful lawyer, who was initially part of an elite, a nationalist distrustful of radicals in a non-violent organization.

He was also known as a lady’s man uncertain of his direction.

But events and new friends helped transform him from a captive of the suites to a man of the streets, His law partner Oliver Tambo and the mild-mannered ANC colleague Walter Sisulu influenced his thinking. His exposure to the ravages and violence of apartheid on the lives of ordinary Africans radicalized him.

As a member of ANC’s Youth League, he questioned the organization’s conservatism and challenged its mass base by recognizing after massacres of his people, that they would have to fight back.

He consciously built alliances across racial, political, and tribal lines.

He became the leader of a group within his party committed to armed struggle, and traveled to other African states for military training. He was denounced as a terrorist but was careful to insure that the bombs his comrades planted did not kill civilians.

In short, he became a guerrilla fighter who the South Africans hunted along with the CIA. In fact it was the Americans who tipped the police off on where to capture him.

There was no Julian Assange in those days to blow the whistle on their covert surveillance.

This is not a part of his history that corporate media likes to project for fear of what it could encourage. The corporates and foundations that fund his foundation prefer to treat him as an icon that everyone loves, not an agitator that the establishment hated.

Continued: Years in Prison


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