Losing Mandela, but winning a second liberation

Many people don’t want to talk about it. Newspapers have been hammered for featuring an artist’s musings on it. But, unpleasant as it is, preparations have to be made for the unwanted, but inevitable, death of Nelson Mandela.

Government has had the foremost responsibility to plan the immense logistics around an event that will cause the world to pause. For its part, the media needs to both prepare us for this eventuality as well as also ready itself to cover the story.
Because no one can predict when the blow will fall, representatives of government and media have long been liaising on these issues and have elaborated a number of templates.

Themes and messages have had to be thrashed out, venues have had to be decided, accommodation pre-planned and secured, routes demarcated, appropriate public mourning
This means that, beyond the practicalities, there will be a lot of symbolic issues in play. Way back in 1992, authors Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz wrote a book- about the general nature of occasions that have such national and international significance.

Assessing the role of media in the funerals of John F Kennedy, Lord Mountbatten and Indira Gandhi, and at other mega-events, the two writers identified patterns which will likely resonate here when our time comes. In a nutshell, here’s what they found:

  • These kind of overwhelming milestones “hang a halo over the television set and transform the viewing experience”. Nobody wants to watch TV alone, and social life becomes “irrigated by the overflowing of communitas”
  • All media channels put their focus on the major story, and audiences recognise this “as an invitation — even a command — to stop their daily routines and join in”
  • The enormity of the global audience, together with its own awareness of this size, further magnifies the immensity of the moment.
  • The meaning of the associated ceremonies is proposed by the organisers but shared by the broadcasters. Journalists who cover the story “suspend their normally critical stance and treat their subject with respect, even awe.”
  • The media narrative typically focuses on themes of Contest leading to Conquest, and resulting in Coronation (as indeed is the trajectory of Mandela’s life).

  • The coverage often has a “restorative” character which idealises a past and revives “ideals that had been despaired of”. This helps convert the sense of being bereft into one of resolve.

According to Dayan and Katz, almost all these occasions have had heroic figures “around whose initiatives the re-integration of society is proposed”.

This observation makes a perfect fit for the Mandela case, and we can expect the writers’ other patterns to kick in.

However, the duo also went further by saying: “Media events have the power to redefine the boundaries of societies”. However, whether this particular feature will play in our case is far less certain.

During the World Cup, it was tempting to believe the event was a watershed between a troubled place with a tarnished image and torn social fabric, and a land reborn as Team SA (led by “Filip”). But we swiftly reverted to social strife and political problems — something that was also not helped by the ruling party’s timing around the authoritarian secrecy bill and the media tribunal threats.

Like the Cup, our marking of Mandela’s passing may also leave little lasting indent. But perhaps the legacy of this extraordinary man will prove strong enough to get South Africans to spend a little less time on power and money, and to more frequently lift our heads to keep sight of social ideals.

If the whole experience produced that outcome, it would amount to a re-liberation — and a second giant feat of one rather amazing individual. The question though is whether, together, government, media and public will strive to make this happen.

-Dayan, D and Katz, E. 2002. Media Events, Harvard University Press.

This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, www.fesmedia.org. The views expressed in it are those of the author.
RSS feed for this column: http://www.mg.co.za/rss/guy-berger

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