The New York Times and the Washington Post gave coverage unprecedented for an African issue to the events surrounding the release of Nelson Mandela. In the week following the February 10 announcement of the release, both newspapers carried an average of three articles daily. (On one day, February 13, the Times carried nine articles on the release.) But this attention only provided more opportunity for omissions, distortions and racism by the nation’s two most prominent newspapers.
A recurring theme in both papers was “sharing power,” a euphemism for an arrangement that avoids the “one person, one vote” solution called br by the African National Congress. The corollary of this theme is the attempt to equate Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk. “These two men seem so ready for peaceful change that they might be able to bring their two factions together,” wrote Post columnist William Raspberry (2/16/90) under the headline “The Right Two Men for South Africa.” Implying the moral equivalence of the two figures’ causes is as ludicrous as referring to the majority represented by the ANC as a “faction.”
When de Klerk announced the unbanning of the African National Congress and other outlawed political organizations, the New York Times (2/3/90) carried both a lead story and a news analysis by Christopher Wren. He reduced the freeing of a popular leader after nearly three decades to a political poker game: de Klerk “put the onus for the next move on the opposition,” while a “Western diplomat” explains that the state president is “calling the bluff” of the ANC “by taking away the underground mystique of their outlaw status to find how much support they could muster in open political activity.”
The Times and the Post repeatedly linked de Klerk’s actions to the tide of democracy overtaking Eastern Europe. A Times editorial (2/13/90) cheers “champions like Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Vaclev Havel, F.W. de Klerk and now, Nelson Mandela.”
While de Klerk was depicted as the African Gorbachev, the press seemed to want to force Mandela into its image of the US civil rights movement, then complained when he didn’t conform to their stereotype. In a story headlined “Some Find Mandela’s Vision Limited” (2/15/90), Wren belittled Mandela for “generally falling short of the expectations of many whites and some blacks who anticipated that kind of inspirational vision” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Post columnist Haynes Johnson (2/16/90), writing from Washington, offered a similar judgment: “While Mandela lacks King’s eloquent power to move a people and perhaps his genius for leadership, he stands today in a position no less fateful and possibly historic.”
A Post editorial (2/13/90) chided Mandela for praising the Communist Party of South Africa, but condescendingly reasoned that Mandela has been suspended in a 27-year “time warp” and couldn’t possibly know much about world events such as the crumbling of communism. The Post granted Mandela and his colleagues a “decent interval to get their thoughts and plans in order” and discard such anachronistic ideas as nationalization, socialism and the “lumpily Marxist formulation...known as the Freedom Charter.” (Neither Marxist nor lumpy, the main theme of the ANC’s Freedom Charter is simply a call for a non-racial, democratic South Africa.)
Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the coverage is not the condescendingly distorted images, but the omissions: The mass democratic movement, with its year-long “defiance campaign” that forced de Klerk on the path to reform, went largely unmentioned. Nor was the role of sanctions and the economic crisis they sparked emphasized as a motive for de Klerk’s behavior.
Despite passing references to the state of emergency that de Klerk refuses to lift, not a single reporter offered in graphic human terms a glimpse of life under that draconian law. None of the scores of articles filed in the two weeks after Mandela’s release dared to chronicle the daily horror of apartheid—the social and economic brutality visited upon some 28 million black people. It is these stories, shamefully absent from the record, that would truly grapple with the question of why a Nelson Mandela emerged in the first place and why his oppressors felt the need to imprison him for nearly three decades.
Gwen McKinney is the co-coordinator of the National Association of Third World Journalists. Donovan Marks provided research for this article.
South Africa: The TV Version
After a year of virtually ignoring the South Africa issue—CBS Evening News spent more than twice as much time on the Pete Rose scandal in 1989—the TV networks stumbled over one another in pursuit of the “Mandela Freed” story. But their eagerness did not often translate into unbiased coverage.
Consider this analysis from Martin Fletcher of NBC News (2/12/90): “The government and its supporters recognize...that blacks must have equal rights with whites. But what the government wants in return is to protect white rights by sharing power with the blacks. The trouble is that blacks don’t want to share power. they want one man, one vote, which would give power, all power, to the blacks.” Would NBC claim that the U.S. "one person, one vote" system means that African-Americans have no power?
Of all the questions aimed at Mandela by TV interviewers, none seemed sillier than the one asked by NBC’s Tom Brokaw (2/14/90): “Is there anything about prison that you will miss?” Mandela’s response: “Not really.”
What’s in a Label?
FAIR sent a letter to foreign editors at major media around the country questioning the terminology used in reports on South Africa. Following are some excerpts from the letter:
“Black-Majority Rule”—This phrase is often used to describe the goal of the ANC. In fact, the group calls for “a democratic state, based on the will of all the people... without distinction of color, race, sex or belief”—in other words, “majority rule.” If free elections were held, some blacks would vote against the ANC, while some whites, Asians and mixed-race voters would vote for it. It is no more accurate to describe what Nelson Mandela wants as “black-majority rule” than to call the U.S. system of government “white-majority rule.”
“Black Nationalists”—This label is rejected by the ANC, which has long fought for a “non-racial” South Africa. Groups with black nationalist ideologies have split from the ANC over its non-racialism and the inclusion of whites and others in its ranks and leadership. In his speech on the day of his release, Mandela repeated the words he had used at his 1964 trial: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
“One Man, One Vote”—The ANC used to use this formula, but has long since changed to the non-sexist “one person, one vote.” When Mandela was first released, he used the old phrase, but now he has brought his language up to date. US reporters, who have not been incarcerated for 27 years, should follow suit.
“Pro-Democracy Movement”—This is a label we don’t see applied to the anti-apartheid movement. Nor is what this movement seeks usually described as “democracy.” This suggests a double standard when compared to reporting on China and Eastern Europe.