Dec. 9, 2013, Pretoria, South Africa
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In the obituaries and remembrances of Nelson Mandela, many have written about the journey that led him from being a lawyer to an anti-apartheid activist, to 27 years of imprisonment to becoming the nation’s first black president. Some in the media have argued about the sanitizing of the image of Mandela, who was once considered to be the most dangerous man in South Africa pre-incarceration and is now often regarded as a gentle giant (in power and status).  

Many wonder about the extent to which the media’s representation of Mandela as a stoic, gentle man undermines or diminishes the actual strength and tenacity he exercised in the strategic plan to lead the country out of apartheid and toward equality.

I wonder if Mandela’s influence on the use of media in South Africa will become part of his story, particularly at a time when journalists, civil-society groups, trade unions, academics and writers in South Africa are engaged in a major battle.

The last few years have been terrible for African journalists as a whole, to put it mildly. The imprisonment of journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alem—under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for writing articles criticizing the government—has received some media attention. Four Somalian journalists were killed in 2013, six journalists have been killed in Egypt, two have been killed in Mali and one journalist in Libya, events which have received very little media attention.

South Africa has not escaped the increasing pressure on journalists in African countries. The country has been in debate over the “Protection of State Information” bill, referred to as the “secrecy bill.” The law would replace legislation enacted 30 years ago during the apartheid regime. It has been described as a “draconian measure” that will, according to the Mail & Guardian, “allow the governing African National Congress (ANC) to cover up corruption and send whistleblowers and investigative journalists to jail for up to 25 years.”


In addition to journalists, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and friends of Mandela have all condemned the bill, which many thought President Jacob Zuma would sign into law this past November, particularly because of the increasing criticism being lobbed at him by South African journalists. In a surprise move, President Zuma sent the bill back to Parliament over concerns of constitutional violations in two sections. Zuma, who is a controversial figure and currently embattled over charges of corruption, showed a glimmer of the man whose work and leadership in the ANC helped lead him to the South African presidency.

As South Africa recovers from the loss of Mandela, one of the institutions that Mandela championed is under attack. The same medium (broadcast and print journalism and new media) that has been the main tool for framing the extraordinary life of an ordinary man has glossed over Mandela’s influence on media in the many attempts to shape his legacy.  

Some of the same folks who started a “death watch” in the media for Mandela, many months before his actual passing, are now imbued with the power to literally write the next chapter of Mandela’s story. One part of that story needs to be his commitment to ensuring that “the ideal of a democratic and free society” about which he spoke at the Rivonia trial includes media and the press, which was controlled by the government (the National Party) before and during apartheid.


In order to understand Mandela’s desire for the protection of media and the press, it is critical to understand how the government in South Africa used media historically.

For example, in 1936 SABC was established as South Africa’s national broadcaster. It was modeled along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation, except that it was to serve dominant white interests. The SABC conducted programming in English and Afrikaans (a Dutch and German mix) and advanced the interests of the English and Afrikaners. This was before official apartheid.

The all-white government insured that this would happen by appointing a governing board of nine members, all of whom were white. In 1945, in cooperation with the Department of Native Affairs, SABC developed a separate radio channel for black South Africans. The purpose of the channel, which eventually was called Radio Bantu, was to entertain, educate and exercise social control over black South Africans. When the Nationalist Party rose to power in 1948, broadcasting and print media were fully within the control of the English and Afrikaners.


These are just two examples of how the Nationalist Party set the foundation for media to become an ideological tool of power and oppression. While there were publications like Drum magazine, a black-owned and -operated publication that fought apartheid, power over the country’s media was held by the all-white government. This is the media environment in which Mandela grew up in South Africa, which helped shape his outlook on the power and use of media.

Mandela understood as a revolutionary that in order to get the story of apartheid out into the world, he and his allies had to make masterful use of the media, which they did. Interestingly, it was through radio that Mandela was able to speak with his people, many of whom were still using violence to fight apartheid after his release from prison, to call for peace and reconciliation as they marched closer to a free and equal society.

It was Mandela who, upon being voted the nation’s first black president, called for the use of media, including entertainment programming, to promote Archbishop Tutu’s "Rainbow Nation" concept, which envisioned people of all colors living peacefully together with equal access to aspirational devices. He and legal scholars also understood that it would take the media to ensure that the hard-fought freedoms of the people of South Africa would stand any chance of survival postapartheid, and that these protections would have to be outlined in the country’s new constitution. It is this constitution that has made it difficult for the current ANC to sign the “secrecy bill” into law in 2013.


As journalists and writers scramble to write the next chapter of Mandela’s life, and argue over which version to promote, hopefully they will consider his actions, which included the use of a free and unrestricted media to create social change.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large at The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.