A year at Mandela's bedside

2013-12-18 06:00
(Picture: AFP)

(Picture: AFP)

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Johannesburg - "Critical but stable" was the phrase that defined much of 2013 in South Africa.

During multiple stays in hospital it was the only phrase used by the government to describe Nelson Mandela's health, the only clue about the status of a man revered by millions.

Although so vague as to be meaningless, it was readily repeated by a media desperately trying to slake intense public interest in Mandela's health.

Scorn was poured over anyone who dared to dig a little deeper - the brave (or foolish) were accused of violating the privacy of an international icon.

In the last year SA had seen its fair share of major news: The shooting dead of 34 miners by police at Marikana and the arrest of Paralympic sprint star Oscar Pistorius to name but two world-topping stories.

But Mandela has always been different order of magnitude. With the world waiting for news, good or bad, about a man many consider a personal hero, the public interest is intense.

Yet in some strange way many did not much care about the details of Mandela's health.

Sure, they cared about his wellbeing, but many had already come to terms with the fact this tireless old fighter was flagging.

At the same time any story with "Mandela" in the headline is almost guaranteed to find its way on to website and into newspapers across the globe.

Statements from his daughters, his grandchildren, were lapped up.

Preparing for the inevitable

But while South Africans and the world were preparing for the inevitable, so too was the media.

Television networks, news agencies and newspapers prepared to jet correspondents into South Africa in their droves and implement long-prepared coverage plans.

Most journalists like "big" news stories, particularly those that offer an eyewitness view of history, but few enjoyed covering Mandela's ill-health.

It's not just the workload: Although 18-hour days are common, laptops are fired up at ungodly hours to browse the web "just in case", Tweetdeck becomes a constant companion at the family dinner table and workdays are indistinguishable from weekends.

At AFP, as elsewhere, the most difficult question was always to explain how to explain the life of man about whom so much has already been written and said.

All too often the descriptions sounded like a cliché. Mandela was "the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle" the "father of South African democracy," a "democratic icon" and a "Nobel laureate".

The problem with these clichés is not that they are often used, but that they are used so often that they become meaningless.


In the end it was a cancelled court appearance by his grandson and a swarm of cars outside his Houghton home that singled the coda of Mandela's 95-year symphony.

And then President Jacob Zuma appeared on television.

"Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation has departed."

"He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20:50 on the 5th of December 2013."

Between that Thursday evening and Mandela's burial 10 days later there was an unprecedented wave of tributes.

AFP dispatched 22 journalists from 12 different countries, in addition to the 10 journalists based in the Johannesburg bureau.

Along with thousands of South Africans they got drenched as they struggled to hear speakers at the memorial in Soweto, got sunburnt waiting outside Union Buildings during three days of lying in state and rushed to get to his rural boyhood village in Qunu.

For a brief time, South Africa again became the Rainbow Nation that it was in 1994 when Mandela became president.

For a while they stopped talking about violence, crime, unemployment, inequality and an utterly appalling education system.

No doubt there will be time for that in 2014.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  media

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