Reflections As Nelson Mandela Turns 94 July 18th
Prisoner of Mandela: How I was "Captured" and Inspired By His
By Danny Schechter
Cape Town, South Africa: Nelson Mandela was released from prison 22 years ago. He has been "free" ever since. At the same time, I sometimes feel as if I became his prisoner--imprisoned by the work I have been doing enthusiastically in service to the struggle he led ever since the mid 1960's.
I don't blame him, of course, and he can't release me the way he was released on that sunny afternoon of February 11,1990 while the whole world cheered.
I was cheering, too, in the darkness of a TV edit room far away in New York. We were working on a prime time documentary that would air a day later about "the day." It was called FREE AT LAST.
My "incarceration" on the issue was well along by then. I had first visited South Africa in l967 when I was 25, a civil rights activist and soon an anti-apartheid militant. I was recruited as a student at the London School of Economics to go on an underground mission inside South Africa for the African National Congress (ANC.) It was only when I returned that I realized how dangerous it had been. I finally told that story as part of a just published book called "The London Recruits" (Merlin).
I had kept the purpose of that trip a secret all these years. I wasn't a professional journalist then so I didn't cross any lines but feared that even my marginal involvement in an armed struggle might limit my future in the media. I wasn't a terrorist either but that's how the South African government would have charged me had they caught me.
It was a life-changing experience. That, and the close friendships I cultivated with South Africans in exile, especially Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils, journalist Ruth First--later murdered by a book bomb from the secret police-- and her husband Joe Slovo, one of the ANC leaders who negotiated the transition to democracy.
I had well-informed mentors who could expose me to the background and experiences they had in South Africa and the challenges they and their freedom movement faced.
In the years after I returned to America, I became a full time journalist and researcher. I founded the Africa Research Group in the Boston area and started digging into US policy and support for apartheid. I began publishing articles in newspapers and magazine about the issues.
I had caught the South Africa bug and couldn't get it out of my system. I was not alone. The former editor of the New York Times has written that no country he ever covered exerted as deep a personal impact.
By the mid l980's I worked with some of the world's top musicians on the anti-apartheid hit record, "Sun City." In 1988, I founded and produced a globally distributed TV series, South Africa Now, that ran for 156 episodes, every week for three years.
Then the documentaries began, many co-produced with the Anant Singh's South African company Videovision, requiring thousands of hours of effort. I did not and could not have done it alone.
Free At Last on Mandela's release "went out" in 1990, and then I played a role in his first hour-long American TV interview out of Lusaka where he was visiting the ANC HQ in exile. Later, I traveled to Sweden when he reunited with his ailing law partner and then ANC President Oliver Tambo after three decades.
From there, It was back to London to help produce the huge all star concert saluting him and Winnie at Wembley Stadium in London, attended by 90.000 and shown live worldwide---but not in the USA. That was an indication of the challenge we had in getting South African issues into the US media with any regularity, even though the American people welcomed him and idolized him in their multitudes.