Zenzile Khoisan says Nelson Mandela’s death was a seismic moment for South Africa, and the Cape Times betrayed that.
Cape Town - Very few moments in life are truly seismic – of such earth-moving magnitude – that they reveal the essence of our collective humanity or strip down our fences and defences to such a degree that the ties that bind us are revealed.
One such sentinel moment that caused an entire planet to stop, which elicited a response from even the most stoic and calloused members of our global human family, was the passing of the most iconic figure of the 20th and 21st centuries, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, on December 5, 2013.
Like most writers and people concerned with how memory is given function, purpose and meaning, I am now busy with the post-mortem of Madiba’s death, the events marking the 10-day mourning and reflection period, and his final !Nau (burial), the sending of this African son to the evermore.
In this respect, my first port of call was the major and minor print and electronic media, as also the plethora of social media that now defines this digital age.
What I have trawled through thus far is sure to keep me busy for quite some time, because there is just an unending stream of footage, copy and digital bytes written, aired or shared about this towering personality of our time who shook and shaped the world he was born into and engaged.
Like every history buff, I had to find a starting point, to understand what this man’s life meant, or why an entire planet ground to a halt when we knew he had finally departed.
Here I certainly must raise issue with what has been known as Cape Town’s paper of record, the Cape Times, because this newspaper’s coverage of that sentinel moment when the news broke that the world’s most-loved personality had departed the great stage was disappointing.
This was the most seismic news event of our time, right up there with the moon landing, the great tsunami, the end of the world wars, the Russian Revolution and the assassinations of Kennedy, King and Malcolm X – and all I could find from one of the biggest titles in my town, was a wraparound.
There was no detail of the moment, no reactions from the street, the immediate outflow of grief from his intimates.
As I pen this painful piece, where my peers and colleagues are being weighted on their performance on the biggest event of our entire profession in this epoch, there is a sense of sadness, a feeling of dismay and being let down by the ones who were supposed to steady the ship and set a sharp, hard course to the finish line.
Here I am not speaking of rookies, fiddlers, amateurs trying their hand at turning a phrase, but men and women in our fraternity who cut their teeth with rough copy, who have ascended to the trusted position of editor because they had proved their mettle.
Comparing the offering served up by Alide Dasnois, Tony Weaver and, in some degree as part of the loop, Chris Whitfield and Janet Heard, I am astounded that they could find themselves wanting for such a spectacular lapse in editorial judgement as to not lead, hard, with Mandela’s passing.
Here, we have very sussed news people, with an entire brigade of eager and very capable reporters at their disposal, and they, like a stubborn, deadbeat horse, just refuse to leave the stalls during the Durban July. If that horse had been punted as a favourite, on performance, in the July, it would certainly not have made it back to the stables on race day.
The Cape Times’s performance on the day the world stood still, counterweighted against almost every other title in the world, was, at best, mediocre, and, at worst, a betrayal of everything this entire Fourth Estate is about.
As journalists, our responsibility is to break big news boldly, with detail and colour, fairly and accurately. We live to tell the story – and so many of our compatriots died, trying to make deadline.
It is here that I am reminded of some of the great print heroes of the Independent stable, who not only had a nose for the big story, but also the nerve, the force of will, to ensure they honour their contract with the readers who depend on them to bring down the news.
Two of the luminaries who spring to mind are Ronnie Morris and Bra Ace Mxolisi Mxgagi. I recall working with Bra Ace at WBAI in New York and how he worked tirelessly with me, round the clock, to ensure that massive moments in South Africa made it to the air, even under pressure from elements who questioned the value and impact of the events we were covering.
I also recall Ronnie Morris, even on a break at his Woodstock home, still donning his bullet-proof vest, waiting for an emergency call to duty, during the elections of 1994.
Over the years at various titles at Independent, this hound of the big story was relentless, indefatigable in the execution of that sacred duty to break the news fairly, boldly, with flare and the accuracy of a master marksman.
I don’t know what will happen to the editorial team who dropped the ball and let down the team on the night Madiba died, but I now wonder whether the outcome would have been different with Ronnie, a struggle veteran, and Ace, a Robben Island graduate, at the helm.
This paper now has new owners, who have to hit the ground running and win back our respect. Maybe they should start where O’Reilly failed, which is to properly honour the memories of people such as Ronnie Morris and Bra Ace.
* Zenele Khoisan is a former Cape Argus reporter.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers