AS THE WORLD MARKS INTERNATIONAL MANDELA DAY MANDELA'S LEGACY IS DEBA TED
Which Narrative Will Prevail?
By Danny Schechter
At 93, Nelson Mandela is still kicking, inspiring an international day of community service on Juy 18th in his name. This seems to be an idea that Barack Obama borrowed for similar events in the USA.
While activists and athletes and entertainers, are honoring him by responding to his call for engagement, journalists in the obit departments of the world's news networks are quietly, even secretly, combing their archives for footage and tributes that will air when he moves on to the next world. They are getting ready and seem to think it will happen sooner rather than later.
I have already seen a program length TV obit that a major network has ready to go.
Barring some major disaster at the same time, Mandela's death may receive more visibility than the achievements of his long life.
The question is: which Mandela will be memorialized? Will it be he leader who built a movement and a military organization to fight injustice or a man of inspiration with a great smile who we admire because of the many years he suffered behind bars?
Having spent many years as a network producer, I know that the TV News industry's instinct is to "humanize" the fallen by focusing on their symbolic importance.
He was a symbol of a commitment to forgiving his enemies and promoting reconciliation, a man who was cut off from his family and, in the end, lost storybook love story with Winnie Mandela after years of painful incarceration.
This approach also involves softening, celebratizing and depoliticizing a completely political person who said famously, "the struggle is my life" in the name of presenting someone who anybody can relate to, a big name to admire but not necessarily to learn from or get a balanced picture about. The idea is that Mandela will be likeable if he is like everyone else not that it is his stature as a leader that sets him apart.
In the United States civil rights icon Martin Luther King has, in the popular media, been reduced to four words, "I have A Dream," as if that was the sum of his thinking and the extent of his contribution. Ask any school kid about him and your will hear a recycling of those famous four words with no context or background.
In South Africa Mandela has become a demi-God, he is seen as the man who unilaterally freed the country and who virtually walks on water. He is treated more in terms of a heroic myth than as a man who rose to an enormous challenge. He is certainly not a mere politician.
His achievements or lack of them in office are not widely known while the story of how South Africa ended apartheid is reduced to the waving of his magic wand. There was lots of media attention on pressure from the Boers, but not the banks. We heard about the public demands of Chief Buthelezi's IFP, but not the hidden pressure by the Washington dominated IMF and World Bank,
Little attention was paid to how he saw himself as an organizational man, a "loyal and disciplined" member of the African National Congress and the movements it inspired.