US Coverage ‘the Worst’ for Describing Mandela as a Man of Peace

African-American reporters who covered South Africa’s liberation struggle grade the media on its portrayal of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. One major oversight: not mentioning his refusal to denounce the armed struggle.

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise their fists upon his release from prison in 1990.
Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise their fists upon his release from prison in 1990. Alexander Joe/Getty Images

For some American journalists of color, covering the South African liberation struggle was a career marker, especially if they could be present for Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison in 1990 or for the first all-race elections in 1994, when Mandela was chosen president. Journal-isms asked some of them what they thought of how events in South Africa have been covered since Mandela’s death on Dec. 5.

Six—all African American men—responded by email with reactions ranging from praise to disgust to wondering whether the coverage would raise Africa in the American consciousness. What is your opinion? Please feel free to add it in the Comments section.

Sunni Khalid, freelance broadcast journalist:

“NPR won the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Award for our coverage of the election,” in 1994 in which Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. I was a Washington, D.C.-based diplomatic correspondent for NPR. I went in to South Africa in 1989 en route to Namibia for the Baltimore Sun.”

On the current coverage, “The CNN stuff was the worst, describing Madiba in MLK terms as a ‘man of peace!’ For Chrissakes, he was imprisoned because he took up arms against the government! And he refused his release several times because he would not renounce the armed struggle. When he was released, it was because [South African President F.W.] De Klerk agreed to HIS terms, elections, freeing political prisoners and unbanning of the ANC [African National Congress], PAC [Pan Africanist Congress] and others. [One television reporter] told viewers that Winnie Mandela-Madikezela was his FIRST wife! The guy never read Mandela’s bio. Everyone forgets his first wife, Evelyn Mase.

I’m sorry, these are egregious errors. And I got sick and damned tired of hearing white commentators talk about their fears that Mandela would emerge from prison and call for a racial bloodbath. That was never Madiba’s option, nor the ANC’s. They consistently preached full equality, which scared both white Americans and white South Africans. I almost got sent back by my editor for telling the IHT [International Herald Tribune] that white American journalists on the scene cared as much about black South Africans as they did black Americans, which was not at all. She might have if Bill Keller hadn’t agreed with me!” Keller was Johannesburg correspondent and later executive editor of the Times.

“I was there four times. The first time was October and November 1989, then November 1992, February 1994 and then March through May 1994. I cried at the airport when I left on May 13th because I was leaving.”

Howard W. French, a New York Times bureau chief for West and Central Africa, covered South Africa in the summer of 1995. He teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa”:

“In the ordinary course of things, hardly a week goes by in my life when I am not asked to explain to someone the reasons why Africa occupies such a small place in the American public consciousness and in the media in specific.