Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 2 May 2013

That infamous Madiba footage: was it really so bad?

The nation was left reeling in outrage after some controversial footage showing a frail Madiba was aired on the SABC. But while the footage itself was shocking, airing it wasn’t such a terrible crime – the real problem lies in the country’s lack of faith in the word of its leaders.

I have had a great deal of respect for the decision of Nelson Mandela’s family, the government and the ruling party to ensure that the media and the public stay away from him. Since his last appearance at the World Cup, they have insisted that his health, privacy and dignity take precedence over a nosy press and an inquisitive South African public.

When I saw the footage of a dazed and frail-looking Madiba on television, therefore, I was surprised and disappointed. Unlike others, I wasn’t outraged.

It seemed like a classic example of well-intentioned but extremely bad judgement.

Many people have questioned the motive for the visit and the “exclusive” broadcast, suggesting it was a response to the recent ANC – Democratic Alliance kerfuffle about Madiba’s legacy. I disagree.

Watching the scene reminded me of visits that I had with older members of my own family. We are hastily called to come and see Uncle or Aunty so-and-so. We dutifully stand at their bedside, looking nervous, and feeling awkward and thinking about our own mortality. These scenes are always intensely private: life and death both so present in the room.

I disagree with those who suggest that the top six should “leave Madiba alone.” The man has spent his life as a member of the ANC. The organisation is his family and its leadership has a right to see him and to display the affection and tenderness we saw as President Zuma sat next to Madiba and held his hand. The current ANC leadership and its patriarch have a right to a moment of togetherness. In all cultures, the exchange between those who are in their prime and those who are past it is special and important. This is no different in political cultures amongst people who do not share blood but have shared struggles.

There is no question that part of what is at play in terms of the public response is a sense of being shaken at how old and ill Madiba looks. It makes us all uncomfortable because it signals the end of an era – at least symbolically. It also makes us uncomfortable because it is just hard to watch – regardless of his status as a global icon, he is an old, sick man.  In a modern society in which we shy away from the inevitability of our mortality, it is discomfiting to watch.

While the ANC had every right to visit him, broadcasting the footage was not the right thing to do. The nation was provided a window into an intimate moment that was no one’s business but those who were there.

But South Africans must also understand the role that we have played in this whole debacle. The ANC bowed to intense pressure from a Twitterverse that has speculated that Madiba is no longer alive, and has suggested that the ANC is keeping the status of his health a secret in order to avoid the loss of confidence that will surely follow when the world discovers the truth.

This saga highlights the balancing act that those in public office must play.  On the one hand they must manage citizens’ expectations and rights to certain kinds of information, and on the other they must hew to higher principles of ethical leadership that secure the trust of the public over the long term.
Public expectations are not always appropriate or realistic, although often they still need to be met in some form. Figuring out how to do this is the fine art of governing.

The underlying problem is that many citizens no longer trust the leadership of the ruling party. The speculation about Madiba’s health and whether or not we are being told the truth about him speaks of a far bigger problem. There is a sense in which South Africans think that they are being constantly lied to by the state. Whether or not this is true matters less than the perception that it is true. The perception is rife, and so the ANC must work harder to restore public confidence. The broadcast was a clumsy attempt to do this. I hope it signals the beginning, rather than the end, of trying.

In the final analysis, whoever allowed the video to be broadcast made the wrong decision. They should have stuck to their guns and maintained the dignified stance that the family, the state and the ANC have taken all along. It was a bad judgement call, but I believe that it was an error made from the best of places rather than the worst.

I doubt that most South Africans are prepared to recognise this, and for this the ANC must take a big part of the blame. But South Africans must also be careful what we ask for – we just might get it. DM



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