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10 June 1988: Mandela's image problem

Marek Kohn examines Nelson Mandela's image through the prism of the mass media world.

Nelson Mandela in 1990, Getty images
Nelson Mandela in 1990. Photograph: Getty Images

The Nelson Mandela 70th birthday celebrations begin on Saturday. A troupe of major-league rock per-formers will draw 70,000 people to Wembley stadium. Millions more will watch the event on BBC2 or via satellite on foreign networks around the world. The next day, a demonstration in Glasgow will send a party of marchers on their way to London, where they will be greeted by another rally. The birthday itself, a full month later, will be marked by a church service and other events.

The Wembley concert takes place on another Mandela anniversary—that of his conviction 24 years ago. All this provides an outstanding opportunity to publicise the cause of resistance to apartheid, at a time when the South African regime's restrictions on the media have been effective in obscuring the struggle from the outside world. But, as we applaud the fact that the imprisoned nationalist will be honoured around the globe, it would be as well to consider some of the consequences of the way the idea of "Mandela" will be broadcast through the world's media.

Since Live Aid, there has been a widespread tendency to shun any real scrutiny of the global charity jukebox phenomenon in the face of its unarguably welcome results. It raises a lot of money for needy people—and large sums of money are particularly impressive in a money-obsessed culture. It also causes the simultaneous detonation of vaguely benevolent impulses among millions of affluent people, which creates an attractive counter-image.

And there it stops. The global jokebox, where-by the electronic media extend the mass gathering of the stadium rock concert to armchair participants around the world, is outstanding at disseminating simple images and messages. It is unable to articulate more complicated political concepts. Bob Geldof was phenomenally successful when he spoke as the voice of the ordinary, decent, apolitical humanitarian, but his calls for Live Aid's commitment to be turned into a political movement for greater justice in the relationship between rich and poor, although widely reported, fell on deaf ears.

It may be that the Mandela commemorations will be more successful in this respect, but that seems unlikely. A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend the meeting in London between Ismail Ayob, Nelson Mandela's lawyer, and Annie Lennox, the Eurythmics singer, at which the con-cert and matters surrounding it would be discussed. The idea was that this tete-a-tete between representatives of the worlds of rock and politics would be recorded and analysed by me for Another Publication. A couple of TV crews would record brief interviews before-hand, and then it would be just us. In the event, the pair answered the TV interviewers' questions for a couple of hours and then got up to go. In my desperate bid to snatch a scrap or two of useable material, a predictable confrontation developed. Ayob declined to answer one question for fear of compromising his security on his return to South Africa. This is obviously a consideration of the greatest importance. However, I did feel that the general fuss that ensued owed much to the desire that representations of the campaign in the media be as bland and uncontroversial—that is, apolitical—as possible. This impression was deepened by the subsequent reaction to the unmentionable words "Paul Simon".

Early last year, the diminutive singer had deftly outmanoeuvred his critics in the anti—apartheid movement over his controversial Graceland album. The day before Simon's now notorious press conference, the word from the Artists Against Apartheid office was that Simon was going to eat humble pie and admit he was wrong to record in Johannesburg. He did no such thing, asserting instead that his action had not broken the UN cultural boycott. In a powerful appeal to liberal perceptions, the black musicians who played on the album were portrayed as victims both of apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement. AAA had committed itself to a fundamentalist interpretation of the terms of the cultural boycott; one based on the old picket-line principle—"nothing moves in or out of here". In private, its response to the Simon debacle showed a preference for the lecture over the debate. A bit of practice in genuine debating skills might have enabled the movement to contest the ideological high ground Simon so successfully occupied.

AAA had been facing this impasse for some time. In a culture of traditional left political activism, the picket-line principle—no compromise, no flexibility, obedience to the edicts of the Party or its equivalent—was generally understood and accepted. So was the idea of personal activism. Pop musicians were a different kettle of fish. They could grasp a simple idea, like that of not playing in Sun City, but the comparative complexities of negotiating with their record companies to exclude their records from sale in South Africa were beyond all but a handful of them. When AAA has been able to articulate the liberal pop consensus, it has been spectacularly effective. The huge concert held on Clapham Common in 1986 was a testament to its success as a politically-motivated rock promotion agency. But its attempts to politicise pop performers have been ineffectual by comparison.

Annie Lennox was certainly ill at ease in the role of activist when she met Ismail Ayob. Disclaiming political sophistication, she emphasised the moral basis of her commitment to the cause. The PRs approved of this tack. We want to get away from the politics and concentrate on this guy in prison, one said. Her colleague helped get the MTV rock video network's inter-viewer away from politics, by vetting the questions and objecting to the one about Paul Simon.

It's easy enough to pick on PRs for making fatuous remarks and sanitising information, but that's their job, and there is only so much point in blaming them for doing it. The question is whether the attempt to use the mass media for what starts out as a political cause is not doomed to result in the reduction of the cause to banality. The set-piece question of the evening concerned Mandela's present condition. Much of Ayob's answer dwelt not on the prisoner's inner state, but on his external appearance. A ripple of amusement went round the room when, answering Lennox' inquiry, Ayob decided that the nationalist leader's hairstyle and face resembled those of the bleached-blonde rock singer.

The emphasis on appearance was revealing. The power of the apartheid regime is such that, in a world so extensively surveyed by television, the only new broadcast image of Mandela in a quarter of a century was that indistinct and uncertain shape of a man picked up by a TV crew with the wit to train their camera on a security monitor in a hospital where Mandela was receiving treatment. For "Mandela" to become an effective symbol in the lexicon of symbols circulated by the electronic media, there must be an image. So the newest of media must depend upon the oldest; the eyewitness. This is an indictment of Pretoria's repressiveness, but it is also a symptom of a shift in symbolic meaning. Mandela becomes detached from the millions he represents. The world is encouraged to consider the plight of the individual rather than a people.

The combination of hi-tech banality and a left political culture which frequently seems more concerned to impose its authority than to win arguments is a worrying one. Popular culture is capable of articulating contradictions and complexities. Sir Richard Attenborough, arguably Britain's cleverest liberal politician, demonstrated this with Cry Freedom. Backstage, he brought the energies of a Kissinger to his diplomatic exchanges with important black activists. The film itself is aimed squarely at a white audience, and therefore concentrates on the story of a middle-class white family. But it continually reminds its audience of the contra-dictions and inadequacies of the whites' political position. The tale of the white family is carefully framed and intercut with images of mass black struggle.

It would be futile to demand a similar political fertility from pop music. Pop is undoubtedly a potent publicity medium. But it would be a sad irony if, as Mandela the man continues to be confined by the apartheid regime, Mandela the symbol should be drained of its political substance as the price of getting on to MTV. After all, to paraphrase Mandela's most famous saying, that political substance is his life. 

 

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