Nelson Mandela refused to make a public plea for the safety of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl — kidnapped and decapitated by Pakistani militants early this year — after his aide, Jakes Gerwel, advised him against it.
There has been speculation that fear of renewed Muslim backlash was behind Gerwel’s advice. However, Gerwel vehemently denied Muslim sensitivities had anything to do with it. He said he advised Mandela not to mention Pearl by name and that a general call for the protection of the media was more “proper”.
The incident highlights Mandela’s ambiguous position as a world-respected statesman who has no formal government office in South Africa, and attempts by both government leaders and his minders to manage his public utterances.
A senior African National Congress figure said this week that by his nature, Mandela was impossible to gag. However, he could be misled and this was happening over HIV/Aids and other issues.
The Foreign Correspondent’s Association of South Africa (FCA) wrote to Mandela in early February pleading with him to speak out on Pearl. Mandela initially agreed to make a statement and asked for a draft.
But at a Kaiser Foundation ceremony in Cape Town two days later he made no reference to the kidnapped pressman, restricting himself to impromptu comments on the violation of press freedom and an appeal for an end to the persecution of journalists.
After the speech FCA chairperson Kurt Shillinger contacted Gerwel to renew his plea for specific reference to the Pearl case. Writing to Gerwel, he said: “Madiba’s remarks were not picked up; indeed, they may not have been understood by reporters attending the event.” Gerwel stuck to his guns.
Eminent personalities including Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson and singer Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, joined a campaign for Pearl’s release.
In his letter to Mandela, Shillinger said: “Your globally recognised moral authority, combined with South Africa’s warm relationship with the peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia might well ensure that Mr Pearl’s case ends without tragedy.”
Gerwel confirmed he advised Mandela to make a general statement on press freedom. “I thought it was proper to make a strong statement on the way media was dealt with in various parts of the world and extend the scope to speak out against the ways journalists are being killed.”
He said that at the time there had been violations of press freedom in Zimbabwe.
On February 23 the Wall Street Journal and United States State Department received a video showing Pearl being decapitated.
Said Shillinger: “We don’t know when Danny was killed and Mandela’s statement might not have made any difference. But it could have sent a ringing message around the world that distinctions must be made, that journalists are mere messengers, and that groups or governments that crack down on journalist have no place in the modern world.”
He said he was grateful Mandela considered making the statement.
Mandela’s silence on Pearl followed an earlier incident, when in January Mandela publicly backtracked on a statement supporting the US’s war in Afghanistan. He said his statement had been “one-sided and overstated” and that he regretted any offence to South African Muslims.
Muslim religious leader Moulana Rafeek Shah said he was among key members of South Africa’s Muslim community who had helped “sensitise” Mandela to the “local political realities on the ground”. Shah welcomed Mandela’s “diplomatic” posture on the Pearl issue.
Shah condemned Pearl’s execution as “deplorable and un-Islamic”. However, he said, journalists who did not perform their job with objectivity “could expect a reaction”. “In the case of Pearl, it was alleged he was involved in espionage.”
A senior Muslim member of the ANC, who also welcomed Mandela’s conduct on Pearl, said it was widely believed in local Muslim circles that the journalist was an Israeli spy. His Pakistani executioners had accused him of being a CIA agent. US intelligence legislation prohibits the recruitment of American journalists as spies.
Muslim sensibilities have not been the only issues on which Mandela’s advisers and colleagues have urged him to retract public pronouncements.
Last week the ANC’s top executive structure, the 19-member National Working Committee (NWC), prevailed on him to retract his earlier implied criticism of government policy on the treatment of HIV/Aids.
Mandela told the Sunday Times there was too much fruitless debate on the epidemic and not enough action. It is known that he discussed the article with Mbeki on the day it appeared.
After the NWC meeting, he said the government’s approach was “the best in the world” and that the Aids programme had been beset by “a communication problem”.
He said he would say nothing further on HIV/Aids without first consulting the ANC, and denied media reports of tensions between Mbeki and himself.
Presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo has also dismissed reports of strained relations between the two leaders.
Mandela has made other public interventions on Aids, followed by apparent backtracking.
On World Aids Day last year he praised the presidents of Botswana, Uganda and Senegal for taking a lead in reducing HIV/Aids levels, pointedly leaving South Africa off the list. “Heads of state of those countries are seen moving around the country picking up children with HIV/Aids and embarking on a lot of initiatives, which makes people feel there is no stigma attached.”
He later said his speech had been misinterpreted to imply criticism of the South African government.
The US journal Newsweek reported this week that Mbeki’s office stopped returning Mandela’s calls after the speech at the Kaiser dinner in Cape Town in which he called for an all-out offensive on Aids and hinted broadly that government was not able to admit its mistakes.
“The two men later met and papered over the incident, but the damage was done,” Newsweek states.