Forbes Africa :: Editor's Letter
August 2017
   Forbes Africa

The Day Mandela Was After My Blood...

I hate how fashionable it has become, especially among the young, to knock Nelson Mandela for the way he negotiated a future for, at the time, Africa’s biggest economy. I have heard them all down the years,
usually from people who never met him: he gave too much, was too forgiving and didn’t grind down the bosses hard enough, or even worse: “He sold us out.” Those words stick in my craw. I am writing this on July 18 on what would have been his 99th birthday. As a young man, I was on the road when Mandela was head of state and lucky enough to know him. I am proud that he never forgot my name – remarkable, bearing in mind how many people he met every day – and prouder, still, that we shared more than a few laughs. If I had a time machine, I would have loved to have spent a night out with the old man in Sophiatown in the 1950s.

Certainly, Mandela never wanted to be a saint and was by no means one when living it up in his youth. When it came to getting his own way and the freedom of the press, Mandela was also far from a saint. Let us say, politely, in my experience, he was ambivalent, to say the least. One of the worst rants I ever heard against “white-owned press”, long before the gutter politics of the 21st century, came from the lips of the old man, with a face like thunder, at Harare Airport in 1997. The fact that then Mugabe loyalist minister Joice Mujuru – it is still hard to believe she has rebranded herself in opposition – cheered every word in a land where the press was far from free, gives you an idea of how rough those words were. I can tell you I was shaking my head on the other side of the table.

Many liberation leaders forget the publicity courageous journalists risk their lives to give them when they were fighting the good fight in the bush. An old editor pal of mine told me once that Mandela was like any other politician and wanted his picture on every page of a newspaper – except for the sport pages, because he didn’t want to associate with losers! Mandela, when he was head of state, used to have editors for breakfast, in both sense of the words, at his Houghton home in Johannesburg. My colleagues told me the first time they were invited they were pretty flattered; until they realized what it really meant. With newspaper in hand, Mandela would give the editor a wigging, over bacon and egg, in front of his staff. Most of the editors took it in good part – there was no hiding from the head of state, after all – but it was another example of the man behind the smiling face of reconciliation. Heavens, he was even after my blood in 2001 when I dared, as an executive producer, to drop one of his stories from the national news bulletin on TV.

It concerned his post-presidential tour of South Africa opening a school a day. It was laudable and so typical of the man. Mandela used to ring up big companies and get them to write big cheques to build new schools with the unspoken quid pro quo that he would open them in a blaze of publicity. So every night, for weeks on end, we ran the same school story, even though I was increasingly uncomfortable about how company branding found its way into shot. One fine day, under groaning pressure from a ton of stories, I had to drop the Mandela school story from the English bulletin, even though it ran in every other language bulletin. The next morning, I was called to the office of the head of news. Mandela had phoned to complain. “I have never heard the old man so angry.

Next time I will put him straight through to you!” said my flustered boss, Barney Mthombothi, a great editor who took many bullets on behalf of his staff. Rather not, Barney Having said all that, Mandela never lifted a finger to hurt journalists. He was always ready to talk and never hid behind security men. When we used to walk away from stories, the old man used to say: “You must do your job, tell your stories.” I just feel privileged to have known him and, please, spare me the nonsense of hearing this: “He sold us out.”

We all have bad memories when our prejudices take hold. For a start, in the four years between the release of Mandela and his election, on April 27, 1994, more than 10,000 people died in political fighting. Right wingers bombed OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg; assassins gunned down Chris Hani outside his Johannesburg home; more right wingers fought gun battles in Bophuthatswana; by all accounts, the army was wavering. On each occasion, Mandela managed to pour oil on troubled waters, even before he took the top job. I am convinced that he saved South Africa from a bloody civil war; few could have done this.

As for the economy, Mandela negotiated a political settlement at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that ushered in a free market followed by a flood of investment that came with it, along with more than 10 years of boom “Money won’t bring us freedom, the freedom to make it will,” he said. He had no magic wand for the economy. Surely, the rest was up to the hard work of the people? Mandela, for his flaws, always saw the good in people. Maybe it is time to see the good in ourselves.


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