The Presidential Years

Many years before becoming President of South Africa, long before prisoners on Robben Island were allowed to read newspapers, Mandela was immersed in relations with the media and steeped in the arts of using the media to mobilise and communicate and advance ANC goals.

Indeed, newspapers broadly reflecting the sentiments among the communities subjected to colonial subjugation had been established in the nineteenth century by leaders of African opinion in South Africa. Most were aimed at helping to articulate and unify the resistance that gave birth to the African National Congress in 1912.577 Selope Thema , one of the most prolific writers and journalists of the early 20th Century, whom Mandela greatly respected, articulated their role thus:

The duty of (Bantu) writers and journalists, as that of writers and journalists of other races, is to call the attention of the leaders to the things that are detrimental to the interest and welfare of the people. A writer who does not criticise and correct the mistakes of his people does not fulfil the purpose for which God endowed him with the power of the pen. A writer is a prophet, and his duty is not only to prophesy but also to rebuke, when necessary, the people for wrongdoing; to criticise, when occasion demands it, the conduct and methods of the leaders of his race, and to point out the way to salvation.578

During the 1950s, when Mandela was banned and restricted to Johannesburg, he depended, with caution, on newspapers for information on what was happening elsewhere:

Although I read a variety of newspapers from around the country, newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it.579

When the Treason Trial ended in acquittal of all in March 1961, Mandela went underground and used the media to communicate the ANC’s positions and activities. He met with editors of more liberal newspapers to brief them on the ANC’s campaign for a national convention. He created news to ‘feed the mythology of the Black Pimpernel by taking a pocketful of ‘tickeys’ (three penny coins) and phoning individual newspaper reporters from telephone boxes and relaying stories of what we were planning or of the ineptitude of the police.’580 In the build-up to a national stay-away coinciding with South Africa becoming a republic, outside the Commonwealth, he continued engaging the media. But while he found some support for opposition to a republic amongst English-speaking editors, when it came to action those papers discouraged the strike and downplayed its impact, adopting a role which Mandela thought ‘thoroughly shameful’.581

This experience with the media in the months before his arrest and imprisonment drove home both the power of media and the fact that the institution was largely embedded in the prevailing order.

Later, in prison, not being allowed newspapers was a harsh deprivation.

Newspapers are more valuable to political prisoners than gold or diamonds, more hungered for than food or tobacco; they were the most precious contraband on Robben Island. News was the intellectual raw material of the struggle. We were not allowed any news at all, and we craved it. … We regarded it as our duty to keep ourselves up to date with the politics of the country and fought long and hard for the right to have newspapers.582

The media were also crucial to the success of struggles in prison.

In order for a hunger strike to succeed, the outside world must learn of it. Otherwise, prisoners will simply starve themselves to death and no one will know. Smuggled-out information that we were on a hunger strike would elicit newspaper stories, which in turn would generate pressure from support groups.583

Emerging from prison Mandela immediately demonstrated his skill in handing the media at his first media conference, the day after his release. The journalists at the press conference, many of whom had been disappointed by the speech he made on release, not understanding that it was principally directed at the ANC constituency, were captivated at the media conference, perhaps flattered, to the extent that they applauded when Mandela ended. They then transmitted his key messages about the transition to the broader audience.

But precisely because the institutions of communication were so vital, they needed to be part of the overall transformation of South African society. The ambivalence was fleshed out in Mandela’s farewell briefing to editors and opinion-makers in May 1999, coincidentally on the fifth anniversary of his inauguration as President. He had asked that the individual journalists from across the spectrum of the media fraternity should be invited to the occasion. Addressing the assembled media contingent, he said:

We have made repeated statements, especially in the run-up to the 1994 general elections that we regard a free press as a pillar of democracy and that we have no intention whatsoever of restricting that freedom of the press.

It’s not only the view of an individual it is the settled view of the African National Congress and especially that of the President of the ANC and the Deputy President of the country [Thabo Mbeki]. He has no way of changing from that policy because it is the established policy of the organisation.

We have had our differences, of course, because when the press criticises us and we reply then the press says, ‘Well, the freedom of speech is threatened,’ which suggests that they are the only ones who can exercise the freedom of speech – when we are criticised we must keep quiet. We don’t accept that and we’ll never accept it. If you criticise us you must give us the right also to criticise you.

Nevertheless the press has played a very important role in this country and we do not want a docile and subservient press. We do not want lapdogs, we want watchdogs. And you have played that role and I think that it is proper that you should continue to be fiercely independent. All that we want is that even when you criticise and we don’t agree with your criticism there should be integrity in what you say.

Many of you have that quality in dealing with issues especially when you are dealing with a government such as ours where each individual has never had the experience of governance or of being instructed in governance before he or she became a cabinet minister. There are many mistakes that we have committed and this national debate must go on. And there will be differences. The important point is that the press is there to be used by us as a mirror in which we can see our own performance; and we have changed our attitude on a number of things because we realised from the way in which the press reacted that we were either wrong or we did not make sufficient preparations for the nation to accept the point of view that we have taken.

And therefore, I have nothing but praise for the South African press which does not mean that there are no weaknesses. One of the things that we have to face is that we can’t really be satisfied with a media which is controlled mainly by one population group, a population group which has been in power for more than three centuries and which has monopolised some of the basic rights and privileges which should be shared with all the citizens.

To have the media controlled by that tiny minority is totally unsatisfactory. And merely to appoint black editors is not addressing the question at all because those editors must carry out the policies of that tiny minority of the country. And that is something that we have to face. And I say this without in any way racialising the issue, but it’s a fact and it’s totally unacceptable. And we would like that this situation should be addressed.

Nevertheless, at the same time we must not be too much in a hurry because you cannot change some of the issues that we face overnight; it’s a process to change them. And I am satisfied that within that context the press is playing an important role.584

In the remarks before 1994 election to which he referred, he had coupled commitment to press freedom; praise for the alternative media formed during the anti-apartheid struggle; and strictures on the racial composition of newsrooms and editorial chairs, with an implicit assumption that changing the composition would make the difference.

Truth does indeed have immense power; yet it remains extremely elusive. No single person, no body of opinion, no political or religious doctrine, no political party or government can claim to have a monopoly on truth. For that reason truth can be arrived at only through the untrammelled contest between and among competing opinions, in which as many viewpoints as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. It has therefore always been our contention that laws, mores, practices and prejudices that place constraints on freedom of expression are a disservice to society. Indeed these are the devices employed by falsehood to lend it strength in its unequal contest with truth.

The removal from South Africa's Statute books of the scores of laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that have empowered government to abridge the rights of South African citizens to know the truth, or which repress the freedom of the media to publish, or which limit citizens' rights to express themselves are, in our view, essential for a democratic political climate. Freedom of expression, of which press freedom is a crucial aspect, is among the core values of democracy that we have striven for. To realise and institutionalise these freedoms requires that, in the first instance, we have a government representative of and based on the will of all the people.

A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.

It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.

…the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us, warts, blemishes and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. … we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.585