February 11 1990: Mandela’s media conquest

LONG READ

Last week South Africans celebrated the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, on Sunday, February 11 1990, after spending 27 years behind bars. Amid all the fanfare last week, what is mostly forgotten is that Mandela’s release was also South Africa’s first “media event”.

The academics and theorists Elihu Katz and Daniel Dayan have described such media events as “a television of occasion”. These are live events that are preprogrammed and resemble a holiday. Although broadcasters want to control how people should experience the event, they can’t control its reception. Katz and Dayan identified three kinds of events: coronation, contest and conquest. Mandela’s release would be a conquest. 

Examples of media events in the West include John F Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, the Watergate hearings in the United States, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. 

Mandela’s release represented perhaps the first time when all South Africans were participants in such a media event. The larger consequence of this event is that it ushered in an intensified, mediated politics that has defined political life in South Africa ever since.  

After Mandela’s release a number of events solidified the media event as the new politics as usual in South Africa: Mandela’s April 1993 television address in the wake of the murder of Chris Hani, the popular ANC and communist leader; the first democratic election in 1994; the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 1998, for example.


But let’s return to Mandela’s release.

At the time, I was a student at the University of Cape Town and a journalist at the campus newspaper, Varsity. I watched the live broadcast of Mandela walking out of prison with my family in a coloured township about 20km from the city. For television viewers in my family and community — who had mostly known political censorship — the media event was a new experience. Many of us had never seen images of Mandela because his likeness had been banned by the state from the time he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. His likeness and voice mostly existed in yellowed images passed along by hand or on pirated copies of documentaries made by foreign television and film crews.

Now he was live on state television, walking triumphantly out of the gates of Victor Verster prison outside Paarl with his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, at his side. Television viewers watched on the SABC as Mandela’s motorcade sped to the city. Then, before a crowd of tens of thousands in front of the Cape Town City Hall, in a city still governed by a white mayor, Mandela declared himself “not a prophet, but a humble servant of you the people” and drew from his now famous 1964 statement at the Rivonia Trial where he was sentenced to serve a life sentence on Robben Island. 

Although mainstream media — including local and major Western sources — fretted about Mandela thanking the South African Communist Party for its principled support and for not denouncing armed struggle, it could  not take away from the historical significance of the event, as well as its media implications.

A few days earlier, on February 2 1990, FW de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, had delivered an explosive speech to Parliament that was carried live on the SABC, in which he unbanned the ANC and other liberation movements and announced Mandela’s imminent release. De Klerk’s speech came close to being a media event. In the days before the opening of Parliament, there was anticipation that De Klerk would make a major announcement, but there was still scepticism about whether he would follow through — he had a reputation as a hardliner in the National Party (NP) — so many television viewers did not tune in to his speech.

De Klerk tried to control the event, while he still could. A week before Mandela’s scheduled release, De Klerk’s office released an official photograph of the president posing next to Mandela. In the photograph, the two men stand stiffly beside each other in a study. The focus is on De Klerk, who smiles confidently at the camera, while Mandela looks away, awkward in an ill-fitting gray suit. The government arranged for every press conference or announcement by De Klerk’s office about Mandela’s release to be broadcast live. Its intent was clearly to spotlight De Klerk as an able statesman, a reformer driving the political transition to democracy. 

This was a definite departure from the norm of how successive South African governments had treated the press and radio and television journalists (with the exception of the SABC and the Afrikaner press), that is, with contempt. This is not to say that the NP did not have a deep sense of the agenda-setting function of broadcast media, especially to coral white public opinion. State media, especially the SABC, was put to work to do the work of “swart gevaar” and “rooi gevaar,” presenting the NP as the only bulwark against “black radicals” and majority rule on the one hand, and as the only “moderate” alternative to more extreme white supremacist elements in white politics on the other.

Television as a broadcast medium came relatively late to South Africa. The apartheid government passed laws regulating television as early as 1949 but introduced a national television service only in 1976. Albert Hertzog, the Cabinet minister responsible for broadcasting services in the 1960s and early 1970s, once famously described television as “that evil black box; sickly, mawkish, sentimentalist, and leading to dangerous liberalistic tendencies”. Hertzog claimed that these “dangerous liberalistic tendencies” induced by television were foreign ideas. For NP politicians, television normalised integration propaganda and, worse, promoted sameness.

After the launch of SABC TV, the apartheid regime and the NP predictably dropped their opposition to television and proceeded to trumpet the virtues and supposed benefits of the medium with the same fervour as they had previously rejected it. But this enthusiasm for television did not mean the apartheid rulers would abandon state control or overt political interference. For the bulk of the remaining period of apartheid rule, South African television was effectively an arm of the state and became the key means with which to build consensus for government policies and to cater exclusively to the anxieties and desires of the white minority.

The SABC’s programming was replete with regular broadcasts of military parades, state funerals (effectively media events addressed to white South Africans) and heavily censored news bulletins that consistently disparaged any form of resistance.

It is necessary to emphasise the point that when television was first introduced to South Africa, apartheid as a system of rule still appeared invincible: white people were politically united behind the NP (voting for it with large majorities in parliamentary elections), the economy was booming, and all the major liberation movements were banned, exiled or experiencing a lull in activity. The resistance leaders of the main organisations that dominated the 1950s and early 1960s were either in prison, in exile, or had been murdered or co-opted.

By the mid-1980s, the SABC introduced two other channels for the black population — TV2 and TV3. In their coverage, these channels began to reflect the changing class structure and political economy of black South Africans. Although some of the shows on these channels repeated and reflected old, outdated tropes, other programmes began to depict black people employed in manufacturing inside “white South Africa”. Those shows were complemented by US sitcoms and dramas (especially police dramas, often dubbed into Afrikaans or Zulu) that featured intermingling of races and desegregated workplaces. Game shows, soap operas about urban black life, and variety and talent shows that mixed modern music genres quickly became standard fare on these channels.

At about this time, the SABC also began broadcasting The Cosby Show. This series about a black middle-class family in New York City became popular with viewers of all races but especially white South Africans. As a result, some white South Africans (including De Klerk) have argued ex post facto that The Cosby Show had a significant effect on white South Africans’ attitudes toward their black countrymen and in the process contributed to white South Africans’ willingness to endorse negotiations to end apartheid. Research suggests that The Cosby Show’s effect was derived more from its shared popularity and as a shared cultural experience across races. The effect, argued media sociologist Ron Krabill, who conducted research into The Cosby Show’s run on South African television, was that South Africans of all races could imagine some sort of future beyond apartheid.

That all South Africans watched television programmes like The Cosby Show together has led some commentators to suggest that the apartheid media system exhibited mass media characteristics or approximated some kind of public sphere. The evidence cited for this includes, first, the fact that the apartheid state staged its own televised media events — whether live broadcasts of military parades, the opening of Parliament, or the funerals of its presidents and prime ministers — and that these events were consumed collectively. 

Native Nostalgia book cover
Native Nostalgia by Jacob Dlamini.

Second, that although state and commercial media presented apartheid visions of “the nation” and “the people” to South African audiences, the latter often read or experienced those media — especially radio dramas — differently, undermining their original intent.  On the second point, historian Jacob Dlamini, in his book Native Nostalgia, for example, recalls listening to a Radio Zulu presenter prefacing every propaganda item on the evening news with “Bathi ngithi” or “They say I must say this.”

However, the language politics of the SABC, which strictly prohibited language mixing and privileged Afrikaans and English over indigenous languages, militated against the formation of a public sphere. For example, when commercials were introduced on the SABC in 1978, they exclusively targeted white audiences. Although over time some commercials featured race mixing, generally these commercials featured black people either as rendered background actors, extras, or bystanders, or they were left out of the picture altogether.

This then was the media environment into which Mandela re-entered public life on February 2 1990. Most striking was the role and place of the SABC. It was the only news broadcaster in the country, and, crucially, it controlled all live news broadcast feeds from South Africa. In the case of Mandela’s release, for example, on the day television viewers from around the world, not just in South Africa, experienced Mandela’s release via an SABC video feed and, if they watched in English, an SABC audio feed. Thus, viewers around the world, not just in South Africa, witnessed the spectacle of a veteran SABC journalist, Clarence Keyter, a white South African who was not known for his independent reporting, struggling to describe the events from outside prison gates.

If the SABC’s control stood out, just as noticeable was how visibly ill at ease Mandela appeared with the technology and conventions of media-driven politics. US television interviewers in South Africa in particular remarked on his 1960s-era tone and presence: his bearing, his diction warped time. He would pluck carefully at the creases of his trousers before starting to talk, as the US-based, South African literary scholar, Rob Nixon, noted later. “Quite so” was his standard form of agreement. Asked which films he watched, he spoke movingly of Carmen Miranda and Cesar Romero as if their hits had premiered last Saturday around the corner at the Odeon.” Media analysts, noted Nixon, couldn’t help observe that Mandela was ignorant of the “Reaganite dicta that facts impede communication and that one should meet a media question with a media answer.”

But this view of Mandela as naive about public relations and media strategies is also an oversimplification. There is enough evidence that Mandela and other ANC leaders of his generation had a clear sense of media’s public opinion function from early on in their activism. For one, the ANC as an organisation encouraged a media politics; it published its own newspapers from its launch in 1912, had good relationships with the most prominent black journalists of the time, and its leaders were encouraged to co-operate for media profiles. 

Drum Magazine — a white-owned but largely black-staffed South African popular print magazine that built a reputation for chronicling black life (unusual then) from the 1950s on — was particularly favored by ANC leaders. Mandela, for example, agreed to feature in interviews and pictorials of himself and his equally photogenic second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, going about their daily routine at home and in social settings. These profiles humanised ANC leaders and made media stars out of the Mandelas.

When Mandela was on the run from the police in the early 1960s — before his life sentence — he gave a series of interviews to journalists from his various hideouts. In one particular case in 1960, a television journalist from the British ITN network interviewed Mandela at a secret hideout near Johannesburg. The journalist introduced Mandela as “the most dynamic leader in South Africa today”, and because of a now-famous Mandela declaration on armed struggle, the interview took on a mythical status. 

Mandela revelled in the media’s description of him as the “Black Pimpernel” — a local adaptation of the Scarlet Pimpernel; the original was a fictional character who avoided capture during the French Revolution. Mandela wrote approvingly about how the “Black Pimpernel” became part of his and the ANC’s media strategy: “I would feed the mythology of the ‘Black Pimpernel’ by … phoning individual newspaper reporters from telephone boxes and relaying to them stories of what we were planning or the ineptitude of the police.”

Similarly, Mandela exploited media tropes of black politics to his own and the ANC’s advantage. For example, although the young Mandela built a public profile as a lawyer with a practice in downtown Johannesburg, he also played up the media’s fascination with his family relationship to traditional chiefs and the Xhosa royalty.

On the day of his sentencing in 1964, Mandela arrived dressed in the ceremonial outfit of a Xhosa chief. Images of “Chief” Mandela were plastered on front pages, and video of that entrance — often slowed down for effect — became a staple for years to come. The whole performance was a deliberate strategy to make a very public and symbolic connection with a long history of black resistance for Mandela supporters and particularly for the media. The gambit worked: the New York Times, for example, referred to Mandela and his co-accused as “the new George Washingtons and Ben Franklins” of their time.

While Mandela was in jail, the state banned all images of him, as well as with speeches or quotes or attributions thereof, yet he retained a prominent media presence through his likeness on posters, in countless songs composed in his honour, as a recipient of honorary doctorates, and from the 1980s on, through music concerts that became impressive live television events.

Nevertheless, the media landscape that Mandela encountered on his release in 1990 was profoundly different from the one he left behind in 1964. It was more intense and fast-paced and these profound changes may explain his initial clumsy media reactions. However, the force of Mandela’s personality and the appeal of the ANC to the majority of South Africans meant that despite the apartheid government’s best efforts, it could not control how black South Africans would experience the media event of his release or how Mandela or the ANC would shape or frame it to their political advantage. If Mandela made a point of downplaying his personal charisma and insisting that he was merely an ordinary servant of the people and loyal ANC member, he could not prevent the new media politics from turning him into a 21st-century media celebrity and the star of South Africa’s first mass media event.

Sean Jacobs is the author of Media in Postapartheid South Africa: Postcolonial Politics in the Age of Globalization 


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Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, founder and editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow

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