In the small village of Qunu in South Africa, surveillance cameras belonging to Western media agencies have been found outside the retirement home of Nelson Mandela, the much-loved former president and freedom fighter.
Local residents are outraged, accusing the agencies of offending their culture and acting like vultures around a dying lion.
In Qunu, children are performing a traditional song and dance at a coming of age ceremony. Taking their photograph is Charlie Shoemaker, a freelance photographer from the US who sells his pictures to American and British publications through the Corbis Agency. He’s here because of the village’s famous inhabitant: Nelson Mandela.
“The reasons I’ve chosen to be in South Africa and kind of prepare and be here for when Mandela passes,” Shoemaker said, “are because it’ll be, you know, one of the largest global stories of our time and that means there’ll be a lot of work.”
Like Shoemaker, dozens of other western journalists have visited Qunu for the same reason, interviewing people in the community and photographing Mandela’s boyhood hangouts. Some media agencies even installed cameras in the house opposite Mandela’s, owned by the village Chieftainess. Residents like Joe Biko, which is not this man’s real name, said they weren’t told exactly what the cameras were for.
“When the equipment was first installed, before the 2010 World Cup, we were told there would be a fun park basically where residents could go and watch the soccer on big screens,” Biko said, “and they were surprised that there was no fun park. We were actually very surprised to hear they were media cameras now, as we didn’t know what exactly they were there for.”
Both Reuters and the Associated Press admitted to installing the cameras, and have since removed them. Meanwhile the police have launched a criminal investigation. And many locals like Biko are glad.
“I don’t like the fact people are capitalising on Mandela’s ill health, I don’t know about others in the village but I don’t like what was done by AP and Reuters. I don’t like or appreciate the installation of those cameras there,” Biko said.
Residents say aside from the media’s invasion of privacy, talking openly about death goes against the Sosa culture, in which children rarely attend funerals and some women are not even allowed to see dead bodies.
Western journalists like Charlie Shoemaker say they respect the local culture, but there’s also “the news.”
“I don’t think it’s disrespectful for publications to prepare the death of someone on Mandela’s scale,” Shoemaker said. “We can all agree Nelson Mandela is an important person, yes we can all agree, we all agree that when he passes it’ll be a big global piece, yes, so then why is it disrespectful for me to be here to tell that story?”
He said he would never go so far as bribing neighbours or hiding cameras and that his work is not problematic, so long as it remains respectful. But being respectful can mean different things for Western and African journalists, according to Siya Boya. She’s a local journalist with the Daily Dispatch. And while she admited she’s also preparing a supplement for Mandela’s death, she keeps it low key.
“I think the newspapers and the broadcasters are prepared, but we’re not saying it. We’re not putting it out there like, ‘oh I’m just preparing for when Nelson Mandela’s death, what are you doing today?’ you know, we don’t do that. It’s un-African, it is totally un-African to be treating death like that. The way western news agencies are pre-empting it is a bit too much for the South African community to pre-empt it so much, we know he’s gonna die, just like you or I are going to die, but just setting it up like that I don’t think is right,” Boya said.
Boya hopes the camera incident will in future force western media to treat death with the decorum and respect it commands in Mandela’s native Xhosa culture. Meanwhile journalists in both Africa and the west, in their respective styles, continue to plan for the day one of contemporary history’s most illustrious leaders ultimately passes away.