Mandela: The Media’s Prince Charming 

Journalists describe how they were often too in awe of the South African liberator to ask critical questions.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela Walter Dhladhla/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela had a way with journalists.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault became part of the coverage of Mandela’s death Thursday as an interview subject and a news analyst. Her early visits to apartheid-era South Africa left her with a bond of familiarity, she told Al Sharpton on his MSNBC “PoliticsNation” show shortly after the news that Mandela had died at 95.

“They talked as our people did,” Hunter-Gault said of South Africa’s white minority and the white majority in the U.S. South.

“They were God’s chosen people. Black people just were not made to be first-class citizens.”

Of course, she had to be fair-minded as a journalist, Hunter-Gault said, but her Southern background—she was one of two black students who integrated the University of Georgia in 1961—gave her an instant connection with Mandela and South Africa’s black majority. Hunter-Gault wrote for PBS “NewsHour” Thursday, “I conducted more interviews with him than almost any other journalist.”

The New York Times posted a video in which six Times journalists who had covered Mandela—Ian Fisher, John F. Burns, Donald G. McNeil Jr., Suzanne Daley, Lydia Polgreen and Alan Cowell—shared their experiences

First up was Fisher, Nairobi bureau chief from 1998 to 2001. He described his disappointment that he had not met Mandela earlier in the leader’s life, as he appeared weak and tired when Fisher covered Mandela in 2000 in Tanzania, brokering peace in a civil war in Burundi had killed as many as 200,000 people. But then Mandela lectured the two sides about the heinousness of their actions.

“It was hard to overstate the power of those words,” Fisher said. His own wife was pregnant at the time. “I think I have a name for our child,” Fisher said he told her. Fisher, who is white, then introduced his 12-year-old, Nelson.

From South Africa, Reuters correspondent Marius Bosch wrote, “More than anything else, Mandela’s charm, presence, humour and genuine concern for his fellow South Africans made each assignment involving him something out of the ordinary.