Apparently the BBC has had over 1300 complaints thus far about over-coverage of Mandela’s death. And life, presumably.
Not knowing the exact nature of the complaints, I’m guessing BBC listeners are finding it all too foreign and far away; exactly the reaction I got from most UK publishers and literary agents who rejected my first novel, Salt & Honey.
In both instances, my perspective is, I admit, partisan. Nevertheless, the complaints are puzzling. Few would dispute that Nelson Mandela was the statesman of the 20th century; a man with the humility, humanity and moral stature not seen since the death of Gandhi. He liberated millions of black South Africans from Apartheid, and millions of white South Africans from the ignominy of having lived in that society. Globally, he inspired a generation, as we heard from Barak Obama, first Black president of the United States, at the Mandela memorial service. He was one of the decreasing number of celebrities famous for actually achieving something.
How many complaints did the coverage of the death of Jade not-so Goody elicit, I wonder? Or the recent prominence given to the petty cash fiddling by the staff of a TV cook and her former Mad-men husband? Was it just the three I heard on Feedback on BBC R4 on Sunday?
I wonder if the Mandela-whingeing Poms felt that the blanket media coverage of the death of Princess Diana in other parts of the world was excessive or justified? I’m sure they took pride in the respect being paid to this daughter of England and her relatively modest achievements.
‘Bah humbug’ I say to those questioning the Beeb’s news values decisions. Aside from his global prominence, the coverage is seasonally appropriate. Madiba symbolized tolerance and good will to all.
And he was such fun.
It may seem strange, but I, like most South Africans who grew up under the Apartheid regime, only became aware of Nelson Mandela’s signifcance once I’d left the country. I was too young to follow the Rivonia Treason trial and by the time I was reading newspapers, all mention of him and the ANC was banned from the South African press. In those pre-internet, pre-budget travel days, South Africans had little exposure to international pressure groups such as the Anti-Apartheid movement.
I left South Africa before his release from prison and remember sitting alone in my newly-adopted country, the UK, weeping while he walked out of Pollsmoor.
A year later I returned to South Africa for a visit and was astonished to literally bump into the great man. It wasn’t his colourful shirt – he had yet to embrace that style and was still wearing his prison-grey jumper – nor the size of his entourage that alerted me to him. It was his distinct aura. He radiated both dignity and warmth, so much openness that I felt I could approach him and did, whispering to my two small children that this was the greatest man they were ever likely to meet.
Madiba bent down from his surprising height, down to the level of my children, speaking to us as if we were the only three people in that busy concourse, as if he had all the time in the world, instead of a world of international engagements awaiting him. He asked me what work I did, what work my husband did, urging me to consider returning to South Africa because “the country needs people like you.” He delighted in my daughter’s name, asked me to spell it, remarking on its similarity to a popular name in his own tribe, the isiXhosa. He told the children his father had nick-named him ‘Rolihlahla”, trouble-maker, and we laughed at how prescient that was. Then he was led away, looking over his shoulder to keep waving.
There are many things he said that I find inspiring. Now, the most apposite seems this:
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we need.”
Few have made such a difference to so many.