On Sunday, after a few days in Gauteng, I decided to drive past the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria before I made my way to the airport. This is where former President Nelson Mandela has been hospitalised for more than three weeks. My decision to go there was one that made me sad and pleased at the same time.
I felt I could not visit Pretoria without going to the hospital, even though I knew we would not be allowed inside. But standing outside would be close enough for me.
My wife and I got to the hospital just before noon, as a brass band of the Salvation Army and a choir were about the start playing outside the gate, but not before a prayer from its leader, who played trombone, one of my favourite instruments. He prayed for our nation but specifically for Madiba, “the father of our nation”.
The brass band was made up of young and old musicians, all looking neat in their smart black uniforms. The youngest appeared to be a girl of about 10. The choir consisted of a veritable rainbow nation, most of them dressed in their Sunday best – most of them being young people.
And then they started playing a sad, solemn hymn that brought tears to the eyes of many standing around them, including me. I had never heard this hymn before but, for me, it seemed its tune spoke about losing someone or something special.
Their second song, one of my favourites and one which I have often heard at funerals, made our visit to the clinic all the more special.
Singing along heartily to How Great Thou Art made me feel like I was saying farewell to one of the greatest leaders South Africa and indeed the world has ever seen.
I thought back to the many funerals I have attended in the past few years, some of comrades and friends, and how that song has always been a part of the programme.
Mandela, of course, would not have wanted anyone to focus on his greatness but rather on the movement of which he was part and the values that drove him and others during the struggle.
I was surprised that there were not more people outside the hospital and the relatively small crowd appeared to be outnumbered by the media, who were there in their dozens. The row of media marquees made the street outside the hospital look like a Sunday morning market.
Looking at the makeshift structures many of the media houses had erected outside the gates of the hospital and eyeing the small group of photographers who focused on the main entrance – in a sort of celebrity watch – I understood clearly why the Mandela family would be upset by the actions and attention of the media.
Even while the brass band was playing and the choir singing, some of the cameramen were more than obtrusive, with some going right up to the performers, almost poking the cameras in their faces, to get close-up shots and, in some cases, blocking the view of people who had gathered around to listen and support.
It was interesting being there as a member of the public and not as a member of the media. I realised that my colleagues in the media were merely doing their jobs, but I felt a bit of discomfort about the manner in which they were doing it. My decision to write this column was only made much later.
Covering a story such as the Mandela one, I realised, is not as exciting as it is made out to be, because much of your time is spent waiting around for something to happen. At least the performance by the brass band and choir probably made for some excitement in an otherwise boring day.
Reading through the many messages of support pinned on the fence of the clinic made for an interesting exercise. There was a message from the ANCYL who sang the praises of their “Third President” and one from the Free State ANC asking people to pray for Madiba.
But most of the messages were from what appeared to be ordinary people who just wanted to wish Madiba well. Many of the messages were signed by “the Abramjee family” or “the Gordon family” indicating that the well wishes came not from individuals but from families or groups. It was clear that some people had spent a lot of time and effort making their cards.
As we were leaving to rush to the airport, we passed a white woman with three small boys who had just gotten out of their car. The children carried small cards and posters. Their apparent excitement at going to place these on the fence probably spoke a lot about the kind of influence Mandela had on the world and why his presence will be missed. They were born after Mandela had already retired but somehow they knew he was important.
In fact, in many ways, Mandela’s presence is already missed by many in South Africa and the world. DM
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Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.
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