SINCE former South African president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela was on June 8 rushed to a Pretoria hospital, where he remained as of last night in a critical condition while his family and the world ponder his fate, the way some journalists have behaved in covering the story has raised serious ethical questions.
Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya
Let’s be clear upfront. Given that Mandela is an icon, one of the world’s most famous statesmen, recognised and revered by millions around the globe, the stampede by journalists is understandable.
The fact that Mandela at the height of his power and influence dined with royalty, rubbed shoulders with the world’s greatest leaders and had his opinion sought and valued on many weighty issues, makes him a media magnet.
Besides, he has achieved an almost divine status in the world, practically equal to that of the Pope or the late Princess Diana, while in the process becoming a celebrated political leader who inspired a generation through the extraordinary story of his long walk to freedom.
That is not what is only interesting about the Mandela story. During his long political career, he achieved almost papal fame despite being a flawed character with human frailties and sometimes a very dark side.
Biographers and journalists interested in telling the Mandela story in full, together with its hagiographical versions and eulogies, as well as criticisms, must not wallow in sentiment, but give varied narratives and interpretations to achieve balanced accounts.
With that in mind, it is not inexplicable why journalists are jockeying to the get the story first for their own fame and competitive advantage. Journalists around the world are agonising about how to frame the story and make it interesting, while appreciating his amazing legacy.
Of course, it would be naïve to think everybody celebrates Mandela. Many actually don’t. Some claim his feats are exaggerated, while others say he let down his own people during his reign. Some think he was “too saintly” towards whites while others allege he was a media creation.
All these are legitimate views, although some sound too harsh and revisionist given Mandela’s history and struggles. But revisionist deconstructions won’t work.
Journalists covering this big story have in some cases crossed the line. The night vigils and camping out at the hospital and at Mandela’s homes are all well and good in general terms because reporters want to break news and have a responsibility to do so in the public interest — of course, beyond their commercial and personal calculations — but the framing of death, including through rehearsals, with morbid fascination is going overboard.
The media needs to do its job to inform the public to help them reflect on the man, every facet of his character and life, and the times in which he lived, as well as the circumstances that influenced him, but context, tone and nuance are critical.
Wishing for death to come to bring a big story is just wrong. Even if events around him are headline-grabbing, Mandela must be treated with sensitivity and dignity. Journalists who write with sensitivity often portray the story in an informative and engaging way.
Irrational ghoulish curiosity and attraction to the macabre are rather distasteful. We must resist the compulsion to intrude on this issue beyond ethical limits.
That’s why we should agree (minus her claims of racism) with his daughter Makaziwe when she said: “You have no idea what is happening at the hospital.
In the middle of Park Street they just stand. You can’t even get into the hospital. Truly, like vultures, it is like they are waiting for the last carcasses. That is what we feel as a family.”'