Celebrating Nelson Mandela…and South Africa’s television revolution

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela‘s long walk to freedom is an epic story of our times, one that continues to inspire millions everywhere who are deprived of that freedom by state tyranny or economic hardships.

As Mandela turns 90 years today, we join people all over the world to celebrate his life and reiterate his message.

Send your greetings to Nelson Mandela on his birthday!

And as Mandela himself reminded us in London during the June 2008 mega musical concert to celebrate his 90th birthday: “Even as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed , there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom for all.

American film-maker, social activist and blogger Danny Schechter — who filmed Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid and restore democracy in South Africa — has just remarked: He (Mandela) is one of those leaders who not only helped free his own country and people but became an icon and symbol for freedom in the world. At a time when darkness seems to be descending again, with the economy on the edge amidst protracted wars and pervasive abuses of powers, he is the one person that people the world over look to as a symbol of that saying that ‘another world is possible.’ He is not perfect – who is? He has taken great risks, and made his share of mistakes, but the love and adoration he inspires speaks to how special he is – even as he sees himself as part of a collective, a movement…

The Mandela story has been told many times by many film-makers, writers and journalists. Few other leaders have engaged the media’s attention and popular imagination — both in and out of office — as Mandela has, and with reason.

This is how the BBC in the UK reported the release of Nelson Mandela, by then the world’s most celebrated prisoner, on 11 February 1990.

I find it interesting to go back and watch TV coverage of important events as they unfolded. They say journalists write the first draft of history — that’s done on the run, without the benefit of hindsight or chance to reflect for too long.

In that sense, this BBC television reportage did reasonably well to capture the historic moment of Mandela’s release — the reporter and presenter couldn’t have known what lay ahead for South Africa.

In the report, available on YouTube, there’s a reference to South African television giving live coverage for Mandela’s release. That would have been perfectly logical from a ‘breaking news’ point of view — but there is something very significant and symbolic about that.

During the 1950s and 1960s, South Africa was the only wealthy country in the world that did not have a national television broadcasting service. In fact, despite being the most economically advanced country on the continent, South Africa was among the last in Africa to introduce television broadcasting. The main reason: television was viewed as potentially undermining the apartheid government’s ideology. The white minority regime saw it as a threat to its control of the broadcasting media, even though the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had a virtual monopoly on radio broadcasting.

The minister of broadcasting, Albert Hertzog, simply refused to permit television. He said that TV would come to South Africa “over my dead body”. He denounced it as “a miniature bioscope [cinema] over which parents would have no control.” He also argued that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make (non-white) Africans dissatisfied with their lot.”

Many white South Africans, including Afrikaners, didn’t share Hertzog’s views, and regarded the hostility towards what he called “the little black box” as absurd. When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, South Africa was one of the few countries unable to watch the event live, prompting one newspaper to remark that “The moon film has proved to be the last straw… The situation is becoming a source of embarrassment for the country.”

But Hertzog was adamant. A few months later, in an interview with The Cape Times on 1 Dec 1969, he admitted: “If, at the present time, you introduce television, you will pay for it with the end of the white man…”

That was an extremely perceptive remark. From the white minority regime’s point of view, the minister was right: if the pen is mightier than the sword, the camera can be mightier than both.

No wonder that most governments, whether liberal or otherwise, try to control – or manipulate – what appears on television, especially domestic transmissions that a majority of their people regularly watch. The power of the idiot box is not to be underestimated, even if it’s often dominated by….well, idiots.

As events turned out, the national and international media – especially television – did play a major role in the transformation of South Africa during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

And we now know: Albert Hertzog’s worst fears came true.

But the world’s worst fears of South Africa descending into utter chaos did not — thanks, largely, to the compassionate vision and leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Watch Nelson Mendela’s inauguration speech, when he was sworn in as the 11th President of South Africa on 27 April 1994:

Historical footnote from Wikipedia:
In 1971, the SABC was finally allowed to introduce a television service. Initially, the proposal was for two television channels, one in English and Afrikaans, aimed at white audiences, and another, known as TV Bantu, aimed at black viewers, but when television was finally introduced, there was only one channel. Experimental broadcasts in the main cities began on 5 May 1975, before nationwide service commenced on 5 January 1976.

The Mandela legacy continues, on air and off air, and more films are still being made about his remarkable life and times. The latest is a new documentary being released this month to mark his 90th birthday. SABC television will premiere it in 18 July during prime time – how times have changed!

Here’s part of the press release from the South African production company that made it:

Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons, a feature length film produced by Anant Singh and Videovision Entertainment as a 90th Birthday Tribute to former president, Nelson Mandela, will have its World Premiere when it is broadcast on Friday, 18 July 2008 on SABC 2 at 21h00.

Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons is a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s epic life and his status as an international icon. In this, the year of his 90th birthday, he remains a man at the centre of attention, not only in South Africa, but around the world as a moral leader, an elder statesman and an exceptional human being.

Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons takes one on a journey behind the headlines and away from the public eye and looks at Madiba as a loyal friend, a dependable comrade, a trusted confidant, a respected mentor, and a man who has touched and transformed countless lives.

For the first time his complete story is being told – a life of struggle, humanity, destiny and greatness is recalled and celebrated by those who knew him best and who worked with him in the quest to break the chains of oppression, taking us beyond the political and into the personal. The programme features exclusive interviews with politicians, close friends and comrades of Madiba, among whom are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oliver Tambo, George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada, Pik Botha, Dorothy Masuka, Nthato Motlana, Cyril Ramaphosa, Helen Suzman, Zolani Mkiva, Jessie Duarte, Francois Pienaar, Sydney Kentridge, Mac Maharaj, Christo Brand and Gill Marcus.

Read and watch Danny Schechter talk about his role supporting the making of Viva Madiba


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