Journalists the world over who had anything to do with anything about Nelson Mandela went into overdrive Thursday night after South African President Jacob Zuma announced that the global African icon had died. Those fortunate enough to have interviewed him had their replays, those who attended his press conferences recalled the questions they wanted to ask, and those who covered South Africa before and after his release recalled where they were and what they did when he walked out of that prison, that day.
Every one, indeed everyone, has their Mandela story.
I had just been appointed Editor of the Crusader newspaper in April 1976 when came the Sharpeville Massacre occurred on June 21st. The Western world’s news headlines had always presented Nelson Mandela as “a communist” and the African National Congress (ANC) as “violent terrorists”. But that massacre went a long way in convincing people the world over why the Apartheid regime was simply racist and just had to go.
Everything I read by or about Mandela back then as a journalist led me to try to look at our struggle in St. Lucia and the Caribbean through his eyes. My cousin, Ben Bousquet, was a founder of the Black Sections of the British Labour Party, an avid ANC supporter and a member of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. He kept me abreast with newspaper clippings and publications on the aftermath of Sharpeville and its effect on how the British media covered South Africa. Another cousin, Clifford, recalled this week how many Londoners had marched on the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square following the Massacre, and stoned the building before being dispersed.
As a journalist, I was also one among the island’s then young budding local ‘left’ movement that coordinated signature campaigns for Mandela’s release. We eventually evolved into the Workers Revolutionary Movement (WRM), a political group that coordinated exhibitions, protest and solidarity rallies and organized unofficial visits by ANC officials to address public gatherings at the Town Hall or on the Castries Market Steps.
Back then the world anti-apartheid movement had so effectively communicated the message of what went on inside South Africa, that media attention also moved shortly after Sharpeville to the other liberation struggles against racist regimes in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and other Southern African states like Angola and Mozambique. Bob Marley’s visit to and performance in Mozambique in 1980 at the country’s first independence rally and the songs he sang about the Southern African liberation’s struggles also helped focus media attention on Caribbean solidarity with Africa.
Fast forward three-and-a-half decades and Mandela has come out of prison and moved from prisoner to president. The main causes he struggled for have largely been achieved – freedom from minority rule and free election of governments by the people. The emphasis of the world press in and on Africa today has moved mainly to tracing the growth of armed Islamic movements of the Al Qaeda type, China’s investments and influence in and on the continent and the increasing wealth of African states, now able to harvest their natural resources.
Today, the Caribbean press is hardly interested in anything African. Hardly anyone writes anything about Africa these days, unless it’s something about Caricom’s pursuit of reparations from Europe or mistaking ‘reparations’ for ‘repatriation’. Caricom states have diplomatic relations with some African states, but there’s no coherent or joint Caricom strategy for Africa (that I know of) outside their communion in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group.
Mandela’s death was long expected, even awaited by those who didn’t wish him to suffer in silence forever. When I read a story on Thursday morning about a relative saying he was “in a fight from his deathbed” I realized his family had finally started seeing the path of his peaceful exit. He had not the strength to continue and was living his last breaths through tubes.
Had Mandela the strength to talk or communicate after his last discharge from hospital, I’m sure he would most likely have told all his heirs and successors he wanted to finally kiss the world goodbye. He would not have wanted to remain hooked to machines and tubes for eternity as nothing more than a stable human frame of ailing flesh and blood. He’d sacrificed his life all his life, had lived through jail and freedom and given up power for peace and tranquility. He’d been the story the press covered all his adult life and at age 95, in a vegetative state, he’d become the story we’d wished we’d never have to cover. But this big burial story will not be Mandela’s last.
Someone with a devil of a mind recently issued a false internet report that Mandela had died. That was back in January-leading to political leaders, parties and sympathizers the world over rushing to draft and issue public statements of sorrow, only to learn to their absolute horror that it simply wasn’t true.
That time has now come. We’ll cover his funeral and watch him take that final trip on the River of No Return to the Peaceful Valley of the Great Beyond. But long after he’s gone, there will still be reason after reason to remember Nelson Mandela and write those new stories that will emerge from his grave.
Yes, where the media matters, the Mandela story will live and be written, told, played — and replayed — on and on, for ever and ever!