THE NEWSDESK: The best tribute to Nelson Mandela is to question vested interests
AMONG the myriad of tributes to Nelson Mandela last week were some interesting quotes from the great man.
And none more interesting to me than this: "A critical, independent and investigative Press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The Press must be free from state interference.
"It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials.
"It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour.
"It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens."
Mandela, who could easily have become another Mugabe, instead stood down after his first term as president because he knew that anyone who has a respect for power must know how to relinquish it.
Who knew that the Press plays a vital role in any democracy.
A tribute from a South African journalist in our Darlington-based sister paper The Northern Echo also stuck a chord with me at the weekend.
Gavin Engelbrecht grew up in South Africa when the every utterance of Mandela's name was banned, to publish his image was a criminal act, and the abuse and torture of black people was commonplace. As a young man, he admits he became a willing footsoldier of Apartheid, but the things he witnessed led him to lay down his gun and, ultimately, to leave his country of birth.
He wrote: "As a child I was inculcated with the tenets of white superiority.
"The only black people I had dealings with were the “boy” who worked in the garden and the “girl” who lived in a small room in the back garden and tended to our domestic chores....
"On leaving school, I was conscripted into the South African Police to do my compulsory military training.
"Just weeks before completing our training we were sent into Alexandra, near Johannesburg, as the bloody riots of June 1976 erupted. It was the first time I had been in a black township and it felt as if I was in a foreign country.
"Seeing schools and administrative buildings in flames fuelled my racial prejudices. Give them schools and look what they do with them. Burn them them down I reasoned. They are only puppets of their Communist masters and not fit to govern. I became a willing footsoldier of Apartheid....
"Casual brutality against innocent black people and torture to extract information from suspected criminals were part of the daily routine.
"Witnessing one particularly brutal interrogation forced me to question everything I represented and eventually become a staunch opponent of the regime and everything it stood for. "
He wrote that the "bestial" treatment of a black man by a white police colleague still haunts him.
He added: "I was spurred to hand in my gun and become a journalist at the The Star, which sought to place the spotlight on the injustices of the system within constraints of draconian censorship laws. "
He left the country at the height of "The Emergency".
Engelbrecht wrote: "When he (Mandela) was freed most white people awaited his first speech with trepidation and fear.
"Here who was a man who had every reason to be bitter and vengeful. Incarcerated for 27 years, he had been refused permission to attend the funerals of his mother and first-born son and only saw his daughters for the first time after more than 10 years in jail. Instead his message was one of reconciliation and peace to the white minority, while making clear the struggle was not over. "
Engelbrecht had travelled from defender of Apartheid to fighter for equality. And he chose to do so by becoming a journalist, questioning authority.
Mandela knew that there must always be some method by which power is challenged.
He understood instinctively why the Press must not be shackled. How years of censorship had led to white South Africans not even knowing what he looked like.
Every country needs a Press which does not get into bed with governments, or the establishment, but is free to question both.
On a local level, every community needs a Press which holds local authorities, politicians, health boards, police and other public bodies to account.
When journalists are afraid to stand apart from the establishment, or kow tow to vested interests, the system breaks down and the people are let down.
They are also let down when a distracting diet of celebrity-obsessed trivia is fed to them daily by some media, while vested interests go unchallenged.
So here's the first question I'm asking this week: How can this country which has suffered so much under austerity measures, many of whose citizens have seen their household incomes plummet, be expected to stomach an 11 per cent pay increase for MPs?
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