Journalists also paid a price on Mandela’s long walk

This is a guest post by: Rodney Pinder, former Director of the International News Safety Institute.

Nelson Mandela’s long walk was covered by many fine journalists, some of whom gave their lives to report the dying days of apartheid.

While Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor Prison the battle for black majority rule was carried forward on the streets by thousands of young people, many of whom paid the ultimate price at the end of the guns of the white minority regime.

Even after he was released, bitter factional fighting tore through South Africa with murderous horrors that to this day haunt many of the journalists who witnessed.

At least eight journalists died as a result of the years of turmoil, having themselves walked into danger to tell the story to the world*:

• 1986: Veteran South African cameraman George De’Ath of ITN, hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob while covering unrest in Crossroads squatter camp

• 1986: Lucky Makompo Kutumela of the Lebowa Times, murdered in a detention camp one day after his arrest. He was denied medical treatment after being beaten and whipped by police for hours. Ten police were found guilty.

• 1990: Sam Mabe of The Sowetan, shot in his car by two unidentified gunmen. He had been highly critical of apartheid and was a supporter of the radical Pan Africanist Congress.

• 1993: Calvin Thusago of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, stabbed to death by a mob of youths as he returned from filming the desecration of graves at Sharpeville by white right-wing extremists.

• 1994: Photographer Abdul Shariff of The AP, killed in Katlehong township by shots fired at African National Congress officials. Supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party, at war with the ANC in the townships, were suspected.

• 1994: Ken Oosterbroek of The Star, three times winner of South Africa’s photographer of the year, shot dead during crossfire between the ANC and Inkatha in Thokoza township.

• 1994: John Harrison of the BBC, killed in a car crash as he sped to a feed point to file his report of rioting in the black homeland of Bophutatswana.

• 1994: Kevin Carter, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, who killed himself at age 33 after years covering township conflict. Friends knew he had been traumatised by the horrors he had witnessed on the blood-soaked streets of his country. He wrote in his suicide note: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

Journalists covering the death throes of apartheid faced myriad physical and psychological dangers in the black townships and in the rolling hills and valleys of Natal which became a particular killing ground between Inkatha and the ANC.

Fighting swirled through narrow, dusty township streets between tin shanties. Flying bullets from haphazardly-aimed guns triggered by untrained youngsters were always a risk.

The conflict saw the introduction of body armour and hard hats for news crews, though the technology was primitive and the kit very heavy, a disincentive to wearing in the broiling summer heat. There was little or no safety training of the kind we have become used to today.

The fighting often was medieval – hand-to-hand slash-and-stab with knives, axes and the vicious cane-cutting machetes locally known as pangas – and the wounds horrific. We witnessed ghastly mutilated corpses, often of women and children. Even babies were not immune as their bodies were used for “muti” or magic potions thought to defend against bullets.

We had the first body armour but we did not have any “armour for the mind”. We knew nothing of PTSD or traumatic stress and more journalists suffered than many would admit. Immersed in blood and suffering through the working day more than a few sought solace in alcohol or drugs and took increasingly extreme life-threatening risks as the warfare escalated.

Thanks to organisations like INSI and the work of major global news outlets the mental and bodily risks for journalists in dangerous situations today have been greatly reduced. We have safety training, sophisticated equipment, professional risk-awareness beforehand and, if needed, counselling afterward.

The genesis of safety in news was in the South African cauldron.

Rodney Pinder is former director of the International News Safety Institute