Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 8 December 2013
Nelson Mandela is no more. The world is exceptionally united in saluting the iconic fighter for democracy, freedom and equality for all humans.
The man who famously chronicled his ‘long walk to freedom’ also had a ‘long goodbye’ that stretched for several months. So his death did not come as a shock. Nevertheless, his departure provides an opportunity to reflect on what he accomplished — and, more importantly, how.
The news from South Africa on the evening of December 5 sparked off a global ‘mediathon’. In this frenzy, it is easy to overlook that Mandela was a complex personality who had his strengths and weaknesses. And that he headed a political struggle that involved many others.
American journalist and activist Danny Schechter, who made six documentary films with and about Mandela, says he often sought out what is not widely known and ‘many of the lesser appreciated contradictions that are often more fascinating those that make the headlines’.
On the day after Mandela’s death, Danny wrote in Al Jazeera website, “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.”
Mandela’s life was rich and multifaceted, allowing each one of us to draw inspiration most relevant to our own lives. I will remember him most as an effective communicator — one who spoke truth to power, and changed history with his careful choice of words and images delivered with the right degree of passion.
Mandela the orator was widely admired. Although I never met him in person, I once listened to him speak at the UN headquarters in New York. It was at the General Assembly special session in October 1995 to mark the UN’s Golden Jubilee.
Among the 150 heads of state were colourful personalities like Cuban President Fidel Castro, Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, and playwright turned Czech President, Vaclav Havel. Every leader was given five minutes at the famous podium. I remember Mandela used his 300 seconds better than most others.
Speaking in his deliberate yet cheerful manner, he rose above a single country and cause to call for a better deal for the poor and downtrodden worldwide.
He said: “At the end of the Cold War, the poor had hoped that all humanity would earn a peace dividend, enabling this Organisation to address an expectation it was born to address. And they challenge us today to ensure their security not only in peace; but also in prosperity.”
That wasn’t the first time that Mandela spoke at UN headquarters. He made a longer, more impassioned speech on 3 October 1994: his first and also the first by a South African leader from its majority people.
“We must ensure that colour, race and gender become only a God-given gift to each one of us and not an indelible mark or attribute that accords a special status to any,” he said on that occasion.
Such lofty ideals are often sprinkled by spin doctors who ghost-write speeches for heads of state. Except that in Mandela’s case, they sounded sincere and credible. The man probably wrote most of his speeches himself.
His best speeches and the most quotable remarks have been collected in various forms, including two books: Nelson Mandela in His Own Words (2004) and Conversations with Myself (2010). Many are also circulating on websites and social media – but beware of distorted or fake Mandela quotes.
Tapping the Media
Mandela’s communications prowess extended beyond well crafted prose and skillful oratory. He understood the power of mass media – especially the visual media – and used it for nation building.
He grew up in a very different world. At the time he was a child, cinema, photography and radio broadcasting were still in early stages and television not even invented. During their rebel days, African National Congress (ANC) activists never had easy access to the mass media. In any case, broadcast television didn’t arrive in South Africa until 1976.
Thus, Mandela was 71 when he first faced TV cameras — just after his February 1990 release from prison. He quickly learnt, better than most politicians of his generation, the art of reaching out to unseen and scattered audiences through TV. By coincidence, global satellite news channels started spreading just as South Africa’s freedom process gathered momentum.
However, after being elected President in 1994, he was careful not to force himself on his country’s TV channels – a common temptation for many developing country leaders.
His deft handling of South Africa’s media is revealed in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Invictus. It tells the true story of how Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team ahead of the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted (and eventually won) by South Africa.
Despite agitation from his party loyalists, Mandela retained the reviled name and colors of the white-dominated national team. Mandela also indirectly tapped the country’s pluralistic broadcast media to unify the divided nation. He didn’t issue slogans or infomercials. Instead, he sat back and watched – with everyone else — how blacks, whites and browns across the country cheered a mostly white rugby team. He knew that pictures, beamed live into living rooms across the nation, spoke louder than any words, even his own.
The movie is a reminder how perilously close post-apartheid South Africa came to anarchy and mayhem. When the transfer of power took place in May 1994, there was a tight window in which to pursue reconciliation. Mandela had the extraordinary capacity to balance high expectations of his own people with those of the economically powerful whites. Thanks to him, a Zimbabwe-like calamity was avoided.
Images and music
Mandela harnessed the power of images for other good causes as well. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recalls how Mandela used his public image to counter social stigma widely associated with HIV/AIDS.
Gates wrote in a tribute: “My dad went to visit him in South Africa along with President Jimmy Carter. President Mandela took them to a clinic that cared for infants born with HIV. As reporters and photographers looked on, he picked up one of the babies and held it in his arms. President Carter and my dad did the same. The next day, the image of all three men cradling HIV-positive babies was broadcast throughout South Africa.”
That single image – which Gates calls one of his favourite — sent a powerful message: don’t be afraid to touch any person with HIV.
After he stepped down from his one-term Presidency, Mandela devoted his time and creative energy for charitable causes such as promoting education and human rights, and combating poverty and HIV/AIDS.
Beginning in 2003, he collaborated with the global entertainment industry to organize AIDS charity concerts in Africa and Europe. The number assigned to him during imprisonment, “46664”, became a veritable brand for such efforts. A song by that name, written by Joe Strummer, was performed by Bono, the Edge, Abdul Jamaica and others at 46664 concerts in key cities worldwide.
Right to differ
If Mandela occasionally manipulated the mass media and popular culture for what he believed to be good causes, he often acknowledged the value of an independent media. Having spent much of his life under a sycophantic media during nearly half a century of apartheid, he didn’t wish to see that continued in the new South Africa.
American Journalist Roger Thurow, who spent five years as South Africa correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s, remembers interviewing Mandela in 1991. At the time, about a year had passed after Mandela’s release, and negotiations for a post-apartheid era were well underway. ANC and others were envisioning what the new nation should be like.
Mandela told Thurow in Johannesburg: “I have at numerous rallies raised this point specifically: that the right of people to differ from us must be preserved. We are attacking the government for the fact that they are showing this political intolerance. We mustn’t be accused of the same thing.”
Tolerance in the face of intolerance. Unity amidst diversity. Equality for all humans. Those timeless values that Nelson Mandela upheld are aspirations for us all.