I actually heard about Nelson Mandela for the first time in a children’s book. I was perhaps nine, and reading Mary Stolz’s Who Wants Music on a Monday? In this novel of teen/family angst, the young hero says something about Nelson Mandela being under house arrest, testing his date’s knowledge of current events. She replies that she feels under house arrest herself, given the strictness of her parents; he decides she’s too vapid and self-centered, if she can apply the reason a South African leader is martyring himself to her personal circumstances.
And I thought, “Who?”
Back then we didn’t have Wikipedia; we walked uphill through the snow to and from school, summer and winter. But we did have the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in the back of the classroom. So I looked him up.
He wasn’t in there. I had to ask my teacher. She gave me a funny look and told me it was recess.
Years later at university, I was taking a photojournalism class and we were assigned to bring in a photo that outshone the headline from a major city newspaper. All eight of us brought in a picture of Nelson Mandela, freshly released from prison, arms raised in victory, Winnie at his side. By then I kinda had a clue; by then we could look stuff up online and whether somebody was an accepted hero (or really big villain) no longer dictated who got to hear about him or her. For better or worse, grass roots journalism had been born.
Through the Winnie saga, the DeKlerk years, the dignity of being a global statesman, and finally the failing health of Mandela, I lived respectively in Germany, Newfoundland, Scotland, England, and the States. Where I lived dictated what I heard, and in what tone of voice. I still remember the BBC radio report that celebrated Mandela’s life because he was receiving an international peacekeeping award, followed by a fairly breezy piece on diamond trading. (For those unaware, South Africa is unfortunately rich in diamonds, which has caused it no end of trouble and brought the country a string of fair-weather political friends, condemning Mandela in the ’70s and lauding him in the ’90s.)
News–and history, more than we like to think–are moving targets. Nelson Mandela’s life in print is probably nothing near what his actual impact has been; and it is a moving target. God Bless those who do what is in front of them because it is important, with no thought to how it will be told later. And God Save Us from pundits who take up a hero’s story for their own purposes. Rest in Peace, Nelson Mandela.