THE BLOG
12/06/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Even With Mandela's Death -- Sloppy Telling of His Life

The very first reporting of Nelson Mandela's death sparked a sharp flash of disappointment with journalism in me, as well as great sadness over losing the man himself -- even if that loss had been long expected.

The disappointing journalism was all the worse for coming from my own home-town paper, The New York Times, one of the finest news organizations in the world -- most of the time.

At 4:47 p.m. (New York time) on Thursday, December 5, the Times' smartphone apps pinged their subscribers with the newsflash "Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Dies".

I've rarely read such depressing evidence of a headline being written by someone who doesn't know the story. In what Mandela himself, when titling his autobiography, described as his "Long Walk to Freedom" there was doubtless a point by which he became an icon -- but it was assuredly not for representing "Peaceful Resistance."

Mercifully, within a few hours the Times saw sense and pulled that headline. In its app, its online and finally its printed versions of the news it then consistently described Mandela in less simplistic terms -- and indeed much more accurately -- as "Liberator" and "Conqueror of Apartheid".

The politically challenging shift away from peaceful resistance is a fundamental element of the Mandela history -- and that of the African National Congress, in which, immediately after his 1990 release from prison, Mandela reaffirmed himself to be a "loyal and disciplined" member. Mandela's position in the movement when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 was Commander-In-Chief of the ANC's military wing.

Umkhonto We Sizwe (meaning "Spear of the Nation") had been formed in 1961 to plan and enact paramilitary actions after the ANC's peaceful protests against the white supremacist government's apartheid policy had proved entirely ineffective -- Mandela in fact called those non-violent efforts "useless and futile", almost spitting out the words in an angry interview with British television, recorded when he was on the run and in hiding.

It does Mandela's life-story no service, nor the movement's -- nor that of sheer historical truth -- to canonize him as some one-sided Man of Peace.

He unquestionably led the nation in avoiding recrimination, vengeance and violent upheaval once the white regime had bowed in the early 1990s to the inevitable, and had begun negotiating a transition to majority rule. But by then the ANC was no longer a resistance movement. It was, as everyone could see and no-one would deny, effectively in charge of the future. (My own one-and-only, and very short, interview with Mandela was when I ambushed him as he took a supposedly secret route through the Johannesburg Carlton Hotel's kitchen. He and his handlers were trying to avoid the world's press on the day before May 1994's historic election that would confirm the presidency was his, overwhelmingly. After some brief Q & A-ing, I had the temerity -- and banality -- to wish him "Good luck, Sir, for tomorrow".)

Mandela was among a group of hard-headed, pragmatic idealists, and none of them would have considered such a description to be in any way paradoxical. I'm thinking of Mandela's early mentor Walter Sisulu ... his effective international spokesman while he himself was imprisoned, the official ANC President Oliver Tambo ... and Joe Slovo, his Chief of Staff in Umkhonto.

Slovo used to tell me hair-raising stories about their early efforts at bomb-planting, and both he and Tambo would painstakingly expound to me the rationales that guided their agreed strategic use of violence. Today I remember especially the Slovo family, in light of South Africa's current President Jacob Zuma saying this week: "Our people have lost a father".

Slovo died in 2005 after only a year in government (as Housing Minister, to his own great delight) -- and Mandela came to his beside, holding his hand as he lay dying.

After his friend's death Mandela told the Slovo daughters something about his relationship with his own daughters. He recalled in some pain that during a very rare family visit in his 27-year incarceration, he had attempted to hug his eldest, Maki, only to feel her flinch from him. "You may be Father of the Nation," she said, "But you have never been a father to us."

It's worth acknowledging, amid our gratitude for what Mandela achieved, that enormous contributions to world history, radically changing the fate of nations, will probably always come at some enormous human cost ... no matter how huge the human being.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his regular column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.