On a 2010 trip to Johannesburg, I relaxed on South African Airlines and watched the movie “Invictus” starring Morgan Freeman. It was a great way to watch the portrayal of Nelson Mandela’s move to bond his nation by supporting South Africa’s white rugby team. I came away concerned, though, that Freeman would form my lasting image of Mandela.
That won’t happen.
The tributes since Mandela’s death Thursday seal the real image of a man who stands alone as a force beyond South Africa, beyond our times.
His rise as president and as an international figure of grace, political acumen and healing enabled Poynter’s involvement with South African journalists. Allister Sparks, former editor of South Africa’s legendary newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail, met Poynter’s former president, Robert J. Haiman, in 1991 and asked for support in starting a journalism institute. Patterned after Poynter, the institute would train non-white journalists to take important roles in the South African news media now that it was being desegregated. Haiman told him that if Sparks found the funding, Poynter would provide visiting faculty and other academic support.
Sparks found the funds for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism housed at Wits University, Jo’berg. Haiman spoke at the opening in 1992, two years before Mandela became South African president, and Poynter faculty have taught in the nation every year since then.
Haiman met Mandela on several occasions, first at an International Press Institute convention in Kyoto, Japan, and later on two or three occasions in South Africa, including during an American Society of Newspaper Editors board of directors visitation to that country.
But his most memorable connection was the opening ceremony of the IAJ where he had been asked to speak. Mandela was supposed to attend the ceremony but he had pressing government business that day and also was feeling ill.
“I was terribly disappointed to learn he wouldn’t be coming,” Haiman remembered, although Mandela had sent a delegation of associates to represent the African National Congress and South Africa. “I finished my speech and thanked the audience for the applause and was about to leave for supper, when one of the associates approached me. ‘Mr. Haiman,’ he said, ‘the President is very sorry he could not attend and asked me to give you this with his thanks.’
“I opened the small wrapped gift. Inside was a handwritten note that read: ‘For Robert J. Haiman, with my compliments and best wishes, Nelson Mandela.’ Also inside was a pair of cuff links made of South African gold, which I wear to this day with formal dress.
“I had met him often enough to experience his legendary empathy and cordiality, but this was overwhelming proof: he was one of the busiest, most burdened presidents in the world and he also was having a bad day. He didn’t really owe me a thing, and yet he took the time to make sure I knew how grateful he was for the contribution Poynter and its faculty and staff had made to the new school. That’s just the kind of remarkable human being he was.”
In the 1990s, Haiman and Mandela would meet when the American Society of Newspaper Editors board of directors visited South Africa. Haiman and the directors attended a backyard picnic hosted by Sparks and Haiman had asked that Mandela be invited to meet the editors.
“We never got a firm response from Mandela’s office, but he suddenly showed up, accompanied only by one aide and a driver, and dressed in jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt,” Haiman recalled. “He stayed for an hour or two, until he had talked to every American editor there, sitting on that outdoor patio couch.”
From our many path crossings in the age of Mandela, here is what we have learned from South Africa:
The fight is hard for journalists, too
Joe Thololoe bore facial scars that spoke of his involvement in freedom’s struggle when he came to Poynter as one of the institute’s first South African fellows. A reporter and later managing editor of The Sowetan, the township newspaper, he had been jailed repeatedly in the 1970s and banned from the country. Thololoe became a Neiman Fellow in 1982, later head of news for the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC), national ombudsman until early this year and a continued voice on press freedom.
Change opened doors for journalists
Many of the fellows we met in the 1990s became news leaders in their organization. Feature writers became editors; photojournalists took on bigger assignments. Over the years, many became entrepreneurs or worked for nonprofits. They took on roles that might never have been expected before the freedom led by Mandela.
Technology skipped stages
When I went to South Africa in the 1990s, discussion in the U.S. included the advantages and disadvantages of email. Might we lose personal contacts with the technology? As I ended a week-long session in Cape Town, journalists began exchanging phone numbers and addresses. The youngest participant was a young man from Soweto, an area considered the world’s largest ghetto. As we signed mail addresses he asked in frustration, “Can’t we just use email.” Change came quickly and from unexpected directions.
Sometimes the big story is the everyday story
We expected the dramatic stories as South Africa changed, but at one point the
question was how to tell the story of deaths from people falling asleep while driving on a long, boring highway across the country. Good journalism involves the major story and telling of daily hazards.
A new nation
My 2010 visit to Grahamstown and Johannesburg coincided with the last days of the FIFA World Cup. The Oliver Tambo Airport, named for a Mandela associate, and the gleaming FNB (Soccer City) Stadium near Soweto, highlighted the amazing changes in South Africa.
Through it all, Mandela
During that visit, an IAJ driver gave some of us a city tour, including a stop outside Mandela’s house. I asked if the nation was prepared for their ailing leader’s death. He moaned softly. “Where will we be without Madiba?”
A new movie, “Long Walk to Freedom,” stars Idris Elba as Mandela. Elba probably does a fine job, but no one should confuse his acting with the impact of Nelson Mandela. He is larger than life and imprinted on a people who must go on without Madiba.