Mandela Was a Revolutionary, Not a ‘Lovable Cardboard Character’

Madiba is a beloved world citizen now, but where was the global media’s support of his efforts when he was trying to bring down apartheid?

Children gather in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Dec. 10, 2013, to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela.
Children gather in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Dec. 10, 2013, to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

More than 2,500 foreign press are expected to visit South Africa to cover the memorial services and funeral this week of the man described as ‘the father of the nation‘,” according to South Africa’s Channel 24.

The memorial service began Tuesday at 4 a.m. EST (11 a.m. Johannesburg time) and was scheduled to be repeated at 8 p.m. EST on C-SPAN. About 1,500 journalists had been accredited to cover it, the South African Press Association reported. 

Journalists were warned of government guidelines stating that: “Any member of the media believed to be intoxicated, under the influence of mood-altering substances or acting in an unprofessional manner will have their media accreditation revoked and be escorted out of the media area with possible denial of future accreditation to individual perpetrators and/or their affiliated media organisation,” Babalo Ndenze reported for the Star in Johannesburg.

In the United States, commentators cautioned against turning Nelson Mandela into a Gandhian figure who single-handedly topped apartheid and was devoid of revolutionary roots. Others urged more attention to the role of the United States in labeling Mandela and the African National Congress as terrorists and asked whether the global media could have done more to hasten apartheid’s end.

The media attention given the death of South Africa’s first black president, which came Thursday at age 95, led to the unusual sight of four African American women appearing together on “Face the Nation,” which like the other Sunday talk shows on broadcast television rarely has more than one person of color, if that, at a time.

The four were Gayle King, co-host of “CBS This Morning”; Michele Norris, NPR host and special correspondent; Lorraine Miller, interim president of the NAACP; and Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour.” They were joined by Rick Stengel, a Mandela biographer and former managing editor of Time magazine, and host Bob Schieffer.

Bob Herbert, former columnist for the New York Times, expressed views seconded by such commentators as Roland S. Martin and Cornel West when he wrote Sunday for jacobinmag.org, “I knew that the tributes would be pouring in immediately from around the world, and I also knew that most of them would try to do to Mandela what has been done to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: turn him into a lovable, platitudinous cardboard character whose commitment to peace and willingness to embrace enemies could make everybody feel good. This practice is a deliberate misreading of history guaranteed to miss the point of the man.

“The primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. . . . “

Ta-Nehisi Coates, blogging for the Atlantic, wrote, “For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. We have some experience with this. Still, it’s easy to forget William F. Buckley — intellectual founder of the modern right — effectively worked as a press agent for apartheid . . .”

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