By Jimmy Mathews
Death, even when we expect it, always comes as a shock. The SABC spent years preparing for the inevitable passing of Nelson Mandela. We had plans for every eventuality, and teams ready to be deployed at a moments notice, but until it happened, we could not foresee the full extent and impact of it all.
I was stuck in Pietermaritzburg with some SABC executives when I received the dreaded call. The only scheduled flights back to Johannesburg were the following day. It was truly a dark and rainy night, with thick mist swirling through the vegetation. It was however impossible for me to even contemplate staying overnight. And so in true South African style, we hired a taxi, a typical mini-bus taxi and set off, through the pouring rain, back to Auckland Park. My phone battery ran flat as I tried to coordinate the broadcast through the night, made all the more difficult because I was directing proceedings blind, as it were.
It was surreal to pull up into petrol stops along the way, and to hear SABC radio broadcasting the sad news. Eventually we got back to Johannesburg at six-thirty in the morning and proceeded straight to the newsroom.
In the days that followed, the SABC rose to the challenge of one of the biggest broadcast efforts ever. For 10 days, across 4 television channels, 18 radio stations and numerous digital platforms, the SABC had rolling, non-stop coverage of events related to the passing of Madiba.
The task of broadcasting the event was all the more difficult for some staff members, who over the years had developed their own personal relationship with our national icon. I, for one, had been outside the prison when he was released, and at Bishopscourt the following morning, a witness to Madiba’s first press conference, as a free man. I was at that first FNB stadium rally.
All these, and many other events, are fresh in my memory, as if it was yesterday. And now I was responsible for broadcasting our hero’s final journey.
We were acutely aware of the fact that this was not just news as usual – this was a milestone for our young democracy. We had a duty to honour his legacy, and we consciously did it, every day, to the best of our ability.
Throughout the 10 days of mourning, the SABC continuously received messages on social media about its coverage of the historic event:
- At 20 past 6 on the morning of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Bazex Thina Phalandwa tweeted: @SABCNewsOnline I am already awake to witness history. Thanks SABC for updating us with everything about the funeral. #RIPNelsonMandela.
- Sive Tshitshi tweeted a minute before that: @SABCNewsOnline if it wasn’t for the SABC I wouldn’t have witnessed this greatest farewell of Madiba! I’ve never seen anything like that!!
This kind of coverage does not happen by chance. It requires years of meticulous planning. Other media houses had reported about the SABC’s preparations and how much went into it, but I don’t think they will ever fully comprehend the amount of dedication and love that went into preparing for the sad duty we had to perform.
The official announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death by the President of the Republic was simultaneously broadcasted on all our platforms. Our digital platforms literally exploded as the world heard the news and responded with an outpouring of sorrow. We covered the news of Madiba’s passing blow by blow, broadcasting live, on radio and television, the massive events like the memorial service and funeral, and also streaming it live on the web.
Once the news had broken and had started to set in, the real story that we had to tell was a human story.
The first part of this was to reflect the man himself and his past. We did this through documentaries on television and radio, as well as a dedicated Nelson Mandela Tribute website. We were at pains to illustrate to the public his life and legacy, and what he had achieved. The material we broadcast had been meticulously put together in such a way as to show the man behind the legend, and to try and learn as much from him as we could. We also interviewed scores of people in this time who had the privilege of knowing Mr Mandela, be it through growing up with him in the struggle, or meeting in the political arena. We showed how he touched them individually and left his mark in an indelible way.
The second part of telling a human story in this time was to reflect individual, ordinary South African’s experiences of Madiba’s passing. Our audio recorders and television cameras went to the ends of the country to speak to people and ask them how they felt, what Madiba meant for them. South Africans and foreigners around the world submitted their memories and messages via the SABC’s social media services and online condolence book. We reflected these experiences every day and night in our bulletins and live programmes, along with the messages of condolences of world leaders and dignitaries, because this was our Grandfather who passed. We as South Africans felt it most intimately and needed to console each other.
A digital user, who identified herself simply as Christella, wrote the following poem on a page created for this specific purpose on our news website:
ECHOS OF AFRICA
I stand tall so that
The light streams in and covers me.
My window with its bars
is small and my space is dark;
but inside I am Free
as I hear within me the
Echoes of Africa
We are a nation of Strength, Power and a love within us;
Hear its Echoes
as it travels across the universe
See its length as it Echoes
Stand Tall within your space
Grab those Echoes as you Pace
And feel the pulse of
Today we are here to officially hand over an invaluable repository of insight into the coverage of the passing of Nelson Mandela. The SABC material we are donating to this centre includes the items on the DVD that SABC News handed over to the Mandela family, such as a radio obituary, a one hour TV highlights package, and a selection of online coverage. We are also donating a DVD that was prepared for commercial distribution, images used on the SABC TV set during the 10 day special broadcasts last year, a batch of 16 000 emails received by SABC News and, in cooperation with Telkom, audio messages from the public, some of which were broadcast in all our languages on SABC radio stations.
This material is intended to help educate future generations about what it was like to be a South African in December 2013. It is meant to shed at least some light on the sorrow of a nation and the impact that one man had on the world.
The dedicated SABC Nelson Mandela website is still there as a living tribute to him. It contains latest news related to him, as well as information on his legacy, TV and radio coverage of his mourning period. And it will also feature our special radio and TV coverage of this and many other events to reflect on Madiba’s passing a year ago.
I know personally how much blood, sweat and tears went into compiling the material we are now handing over to you. It was a labour of love for the hundreds of SABC News employees across the country and the world.
We are also grateful to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Centre of Memory for their help and collaboration over the years to compile some of the material – and their assistance now to make sure that the SABC material will be preserved for future generations.
From the European Broadcast Union we received the following:
”Your team’s news coverage and production of the pool signal that was distributed throughout the world was literally flawless.
…the EBU was able to distribute over 70 hours of live transmissions for the ten days.
I sincerely thank you on behalf of Eurovision News for the great professionalism in managing the event day by day.”
From another broadcast partner:
“May I thank you very much for the work the SABC did on behalf of the millions of people around the world who wished to share in the recent events surrounding the death of Mr Mandela.”
Doreen Morris emailed:
“Huge kudos to SABC news for the Madiba coverage. Poignant, beautiful visuals; memories of an extraordinary life.”
Jeffrey Dipe Nkogatse tweeted:
@SABCNewsOnline well done SABC for covering everything about uTata, I know that he is looking down with a smile and saying thank you.
Hamba Kahle uTata.
Address by Jimi Matthews, GE: SABC News and Current Affairs, at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s exhibition
In Tribute to Nelson Mandela, on 4 December 2014