THE mound on Nelson Mandela’s grave is still settling, but already two myths can be laid to rest.
The obvious one is that whites have not been killed like flies after he died. The other is the solemn undertaking that we will keep his name alive by acting in his spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation for the sake of the common good.
Mandela taught us to forgive even the most despicable of our enemies, who would burn the bodies of our guerrillas they had tortured to death, as they drank whisky and braaied meat alongside – as long as they saw the error of their ways.
Take the matter of the Cape Times’s coverage of the icon’s death. That night of Madiba’s falling was the lowest in my journalistic life. I hadn’t felt more sidelined, dejected.
I had once served Madiba directly, as a full-time guerrilla in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the heroic people’s army he founded. I was deeply pained, apprehensive, for there was none like Mandela able to show us the way by selfless, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and ethical example. He held the future of our country in his hands. The Ashley Kriel detachment of MK I had the honour to command along with Shirley Gunn shared that awesome responsibility at a crucial stage of our revolution. Talks had begun between the apartheid regime and Mandela while he was still a prisoner.
We needed to know how to respond.
Mandela invited the now late Johnny Issel to lunch at his Victor Verster Prison home. At the time, and until the end, Issel served on the Western Cape Politico-Military Committee, which had command over the province and which I chaired.
Issel brought back a profound message from Mandela for us, which was to determine the course of our Struggle.
In his exact words Mandela said to us: “Look man, they have basically agreed to everything we demand – we just mustn’t make it look like that.”
So come the night of his death I was deeply affected but ready, willing and able to assist with the coverage as the night news editor. It would have been a particular honour and privilege for me. But I was excluded. The editorial executives moved in and took over completely, walking the floor leaving no space for others, no matter what they may be able to offer.
At issue is whether on the night and along with the rest of the world the 138-year-old Cape Times should have devoted at least its front page to the dreaded news Madiba was no more, instead of a wrap-around. I was merely informed afterwards, a pattern. Had I been asked beforehand I would have objected strongly to having only the wrap-around, as I did in planning meetings for Mandela’s death.
Some of my colleagues are mistaken that the Cape Times had no choice but to do a wrap-around only and to leave its front and other pages intact because of time constraints or because that had been the plan. The detailed plan followed lots of discussion among staff and executives, uncannily almost a year to the day before Mandela’s death. It was always the plan to change the front page. The wrap-around and supplements were extras we would give our readers in tribute.
And as it turned out a number of readers did not receive the wrap-around, including in Mitchells Plain.
We could’ve and should’ve changed page one, not only in honour of one of the greatest and most universally loved leaders to have walked this earth – and he came from us, for we share his blood and his passion for a world free of exploitation and want, where no child has to cry herself to sleep because she is hungry.
But it was also the best thing to do in terms of newsworthiness and journalistic ethics. That’s why the rest of the world did so. Are we to believe the Cape Times is so special it was the only major paper in the world to think about a wrap-around only?
So why am I popping up only now?
I had been trying to urgently resolve the disputes over the wrap-around tearing the Cape Times apart and estranging it from its readers. As I put it to a colleague: “I believe we can and should resolve this matter. Our brand and reputations are suffering terribly and even death threats are being bandied about. Let’s hope the damage isn’t irreparable.”
There were many attempts to damage the Cape Times brand, sadly also by colleagues. That was the hardest part to understand. Sure, there is a dispute that needs to be resolved, but why wilfully damage your own brand even before an attempt is made to sort it out, in the spirit of Mandela?
Veteran journalist and one-time Cape Times executive member Tony Jackman addressed the damage being done and proposed to all sides a way to break the deadlock quickly and to resolve the matter to mutual satisfaction. Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder and I put the proposal to new Independent chairman Dr Iqbal Survé. Although he saw great merit in it and gave us the go-ahead to explore the possibilities, there was no reciprocity and our efforts came to naught.
I have restrained myself from rushing into print while that process was under way. Now that it has stalled I can no longer remain silent. A lot of misinformation and disinformation has done the rounds. A lot of otherwise good people have not checked the facts or bothered to wait for the dust to settle. No, the wrap-around was a serious error of judgment.
Long live the fighting spirit of Nelson Mandela. Long live the spirit of no surrender.
l Salie is Cape Times deputy editor.