Mandela and the importance of press freedom

Nelson Mandela, 87, is in a jovial mood at the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.
In this Dec. 7, 2005 file photo, former South African President Nelson Mandela, 87, is in a jovial mood at the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. Denis Farrell, AP File

As the world mourns the death of Mandela there will be countless tributes to both the man and his legacy.  As an immigrant to this wonderful country, I hope that as Canadians we can also take this time to contemplate the vital importance of protecting our freedom of speech.   

Nelson Mandela left a mark on all South Africans. Here is my story.

I was lucky to meet Nelson Mandela once. It was in November 2001, and he was in Canada receiving an honourary degree from Ryerson University.

By that time, the former South African President was already 83 years old. He had difficulty hearing and couldn’t stand for long periods of time. But his presence was as strong as ever. As a journalist, I rarely get star-struck; however, there was no mistaking the aura that surrounded him. I hung on his every word, and like all great leaders, he made even a journalism student feel like the most important person in the room.

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But that is not what I will carry with me, most.

I am a South African expatriate, born in Johannesburg during the height of apartheid.

Almost to the day, 25 years ago, I was sitting in my uncle’s apartment in northwest London, England.

My family had just said goodbye to the country of my birth. We had arrived in London on a stopover to visit some relatives before making our way to our final destination: a place called Toronto in a country called Canada.

On one of our first days in London, we gathered around the television to watch an internationally televised concert that was being broadcast to an audience of 600 million people in 67 countries around the world.

It was the first time that I’d ever seen so many stars together in one place. On the set-list that day: Sting, Dire Straits, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, the Bee Gees, and the first breakout performance from Tracy Chapman.

Global News director of digital, David Skok, meets former South African President, Nelson Mandela, while David was a journalism student at Ryerson University. November 16, 2001. David Skok

They had all gathered at Wembley Stadium on June 11th, 1988, for the Freedom Concert, celebrating the 70th birthday of a man who had spent 25 years in the Robben Island maximum security prison. He wouldn’t be released from prison for another 2 years.

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That concert helped raise awareness of Nelson Mandela around the world, but despite being born and having spent my entire life up to that point in South Africa – the Freedom Concert was the first time I had ever heard of the man.

Many people have asked me through the years, how could you grow up in apartheid South Africa without knowing about Mandela? The sad truth I still wrestle with today – is that it was very easy to not know what was going on.

I can remember as a child sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car driving at night on the highway past a large patch of land covered in darkness. I would later discover that the town with no street lights was called Alexandria. Alexandria, and its sister township of Soweto, were places of immense poverty, located less than 15 minutes from my house. Yet I knew nothing about those two townships at the very centre of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Censorship takes effort and no attempt at breaking it goes unnoticed.

Like many immigrants, my dad came to Canada ahead of our family to see if he could find a job. Upon his return to Johannesburg, he tried to smuggle a book titled Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. But, it was confiscated by airport customs officials.

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Growing up in South Africa in the early to mid-1980s, we only had two television stations. Both were operated by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The South African equivalent of the CBC, except in our case, the media was entirely run by government censors.

That is the subtle nature of eliminating dissent. Silence delivered by a thousand cuts. For those of us born in South Africa several decades after Mandela’s infamous Rivonia trial, “reality” was lived through a distorted lens.

I recognize that my experience may not have been that shared by others in my community, as Roger Cohen, eloquently described in this New York Times piece.

But for me, it wasn’t until I watched that concert in London on my way to my new homeland, that my eyes were opened to the ideal that without a free press, there can be no free society.

As the world prepares for the inevitable end of a great man’s life, there will be countless tributes to both Mandela and his legacy. As an immigrant to this wonderful country, I hope that as Canadians we can also take this time to contemplate the vital importance of protecting our own freedom of speech.

No one understood the importance of this fact more than Mandela himself.

Officiating at the 10th anniversary of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg in 2002, Mandela said “none of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to even suggest faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced.”

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My commitment to journalism and to holding those in power accountable stems from my years living in apartheid South Africa. I will remember Mandela for teaching me that we should always be mindful of any institution that attempts to subvert our democratic principles.

It’s easy to take for granted in Canada, but freedom of the press is a truth that needs repeating, and it is a truth that I would never have known if not for Nelson Mandela.

Thank you, Madiba.

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