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Media Focus On Ailing Mandela Is Not 'The African Way'

Congregants pray in front of a stained-glass window depicting South African statesman Nelson Mandela during Easter services at Regina Mundi Catholic Church in the Soweto of Johannesburg, South Africa, March 3. The church held prayers for Mandela, 94, who was in the hospital at the time. (Getty Images)

It's almost impossible these days to switch on South African radio or television, or read a local newspaper, website or tweet, and not hear Nelson Mandela's name mentioned.

Friday marked the 19th anniversary of Mandela's inauguration as South Africa's first democratically elected — and first black — president, four years after he was released from prison.

For many South Africans, the coverage of his recent hospitalization and poor health seems like media overkill. Older South Africans stress that the African way of coping with the twilight years is culturally nuanced. It should be viewed as a final journey, and journalists should be more sensitive to these customs.

And when the subject is raised in the context of his possible death, "we get people who will call ... to say 'we don't speak about it, certainly not in our culture, not in black culture, not in African culture,' " radio host Ashraf Garda said recently on the national broadcaster's Media@SAfm show.

A Global Figure

Mandela was back in the hospital at the end of March for 10 days with a recurring lung infection and pneumonia. The latest health scare attracted journalists from around the world. And some South Africans say they are feeling bombarded by reporters hungry for information and commentary about the 94-year-old former president.

That includes veteran journalist and author Allister Sparks. Enough is enough, he told Media@SAfm.

"It does become a bit wearisome, and I suppose some people have become upset about it ... the sheer volume of coverage and the degree of personal detail that goes with it," he said.

However, Sparks added that South Africans must accept that Mandela is a global figure who continues to attract global attention for his leading role in ending apartheid nearly two decades ago.

"We have to recognize that the world is interested in him. And we've got to understand that there are many cultures in our society, and no particular culture can expect to prevail," Sparks said. "It's part of recognition of a great man."

Balancing Reporting And Cultural Sensitivities

Ma Fikile Mlotshwa was among the churchgoers at a recent service who were singing — and praying — for Mandela, or as most South Africans affectionately call him, Madiba, his clan name.

"Madiba is to us a leader, he is a father first of all. And we pray and hope for him for all the best," she said. "But at the same time, for an elderly person — according to African culture — this business of you people [journalists] coming to interview us all about this, and that is not African. It's not African, because it is interfering with the African spirit. The African way is to respect. At his age, to pray for him peacefully, so that when God does call him, he will rest in peace."

Other South Africans are repeating this sentiment: that Mandela is, indeed, a global symbol, but his time will come and we must all accept that and let him go — gently.

South African President Jacob Zuma contributed to the controversy when he visited Mandela at home after he was discharged from the hospital. Video footage of the meeting last week aired on national television, showing a frail Mandela with a blank and at times bewildered look. Zuma was widely criticized, and while he has defended the visit, he has also spoken about the need to show respect for Mandela.

"Let us slow down the anxiety. The country must not panic. In Zulu, there is a time when somebody passes away, who's old, people say he or she has 'gone home.' Those are some of the things we should be thinking about," Zuma said.

Zuma's statement was very "African," says broadcaster and cultural commentator Audrey Brown.

But, she adds, reporting on Mandela's health, or even death, requires balance.

"We have to get it right. At the same time, we have to make sure we do not trample on sensitivities, whether they be cultural or whether they just be common human decency," Brown says. "And I think we really can draw the line between those two things."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

To South Africa next. Yesterday marked 19 years since Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first democratically elected and first black president of South Africa. Mr. Mandela, of course, is now 94 years old, frail and ailing. He just got out of the hospital after a bout of pneumonia. Some South Africans are frustrated with what many consider obsessive media coverage of Mr. Mandela and his ill health.

Older residents stress that the African way of coping with twilight years and the onset of inevitable death is culturally nuanced, a final journey and that journalists should be more sensitive to this. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Media at SAfm: Ashraf Garda.

ASHRAF GARDA: Now it's Sunday morning and of course first topic for the day is about the media on Mandela...

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: In recent days it's been almost impossible to switch on South African radio or television or read a local newspaper, website or Tweet and not hear the name Mandela mentioned.

GARDA: Culturally, there's a sense every time we speak about Mandela in terms of possibly passing on, we get people who will call or SMS to say we don't speak about that thing, certainly not in our culture, not in black culture, not in African culture.

QUIST-ARCTON: Nelson Mandela was back in the hospital at the tail end of March for ten days with a recurring lung infection and pneumonia. The latest health scare attracted journalists from all over the world and some South Africans say they feel bombarded by reporters hungry for information and commentary about the 94-year-old former president.

That includes veteran journalist, author and former anti-apartheid campaigner Allister Sparks. He told the national broadcasters, Media@SAfm radio show, enough is enough.

ALLISTER SPARKS: It does become a bit worrisome and I supposed some people are a bit upset about it, you know, just the sheer volume of coverage and the degree of personal detail that it goes into.

QUIST-ARCTON: Though Spark said South Africans must accept that Mandela attracts global attention.

SPARKS: We have to recognize that the world is interested in him and we've got to understand that there are many cultures in our society and no particular culture can expect to prevail. It's part of the recognition of a great man.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

QUIST-ARCTON: Among churchgoers recently, Ma Fikile Mlotshwa was singing and praying for Mandela, or Madiba as most South Africans affectionately call him by his clan name. After church she collared me.

MA FIKILE MLOTSHWA: Some things are better said in our own language than they are in English. (Foreign language spoken) - meaning that Madiba, he is to us a leader; he is a father first of all. And we pray and hope for him for all the best. But at the same time, for an elderly person, according to African culture, this business of you people coming to interview us all about his death and things like that, that is not African.

It's not African, because it is interfering with the African spirit. The African way is to respect. At his age, to pray for him peacefully, so that when God does call him, he will rest in peace.

QUIST-ARCTON: What Ma Fikile tells me is what other South Africans are repeating, that Mandela is a global symbol, yes, but his time will come and we must all accept that and let him go gently. President Jacob Zuma made a similar point.

PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: Let us slow down the anxiety. The country must not panic. In Zulu, there is a time when somebody passes away who's old, people say (Foreign language spoken) he or she has gone home. Those are some of the things we should be thinking about.

AUDREY BROWN: Jacob Zuma was making a very African statement by saying that.

QUIST-ARCTON: But, says broadcaster and cultural commentator Audrey Brown, reporting on Mandela's health or even death requires balance.

BROWN: We have to get it right. At the same time, we have to make sure that we do not trample on sensitivities whether they be cultural or whether they just be common human decency and, you know, and I think we really can draw the lines between those two things.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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