Why World Service and Radio 4 led the field on Mandela

The week in radio

When a political giant and beacon of freedom dies, it is only natural that there will be a period of tribute and reminiscence. Late last week, sandwiched between the pre-prepared retrospectives across the world's media, there was no shortage of politicians, pundits and pop stars paying effusive tribute to the late Nelson Mandela, even when some of those selfsame politicians, pundits and pop stars had previously been on a jolly to South Africa paid for by an anti-sanctions lobby group; or voted against resolutions calling for Mandela's release; or broken the boycott of an apartheid regime for their own financial gain.

Happily, as the weekend arrived, there was sanctuary to be had from the moist-eyed, superlative-wielding phonies filling up Sky News and its ilk, and that was in the land of radio. Moving between the many documentaries, essays and smaller items that had replaced the regular schedule I was reminded why, despite the litany of complaints aired in this column, there are times when I should quit carping and remember what is achieved here.

BBC radio is far from perfect, this much we know. But it is also a dispenser of small miracles on a daily basis. And lately these miracles have arrived at a dizzying rate.

Thanks to the BBC World Service and Radio 4, in the last week I have thought more about Nelson Mandela, and the ideologies that shaped him, than I have my own child. I wouldn't know more about him had I speed-read a pile of heavy-duty biographies after inhaling a packet of ProPlus.

In the process, I have some learned some charming facts such as the one relayed by the BBC's former South Africa correspondent Allan Little in Radio 4's Out of the Darkness about Mandela being born Rolihlahla, which translates from Xhosa as "pulling a branch from a tree" but also, more colloquially, means "troublemaker". And the fact that, while on the run, he became known as "the black pimpernel", and would disguise himself as a window cleaner, a car mechanic and, for meetings with white co-conspirators, a chauffeur. He would drive them around Johannesburg in this jarringly apt disguise while carving South Africa's political future.

I have heard substantial, reflective and often surprising viewpoints regarding a man who was more complex than I had ever imagined, both in person and in influence. Among the most intriguing perspectives came from Making Mandela in which presenter Laurie Taylor showed how we British became caught up in Mandela's extraordinary narrative and chronicled his rise here as a moral icon.

In the late Sixties few knew Mandela's name though his legend grew at the same rate as the British anti-apartheid movement, then galvanised largely by white left-wing types. "The idea of Nelson Mandela as a symbol of the brutality of the South African state was tremendously powerful," noted Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. "And let us be completely honest, it was partly manufactured. He wasn't the only leader in jail."

What will remain with me longest, however, is not so much the image of Mandela himself as the portrait of a country through the eyes its Prime Minister Johannes Strijdom in 1957.

In a chilling interview unearthed by the BBC World Service's Witness, Strijdom reflected on his decision to make black South Africans second-class citizens. "We are dealing," he said, "with a breed of people whose natural standard of life is far below that of the white man, and they will in their own interest have to remain under the guardianship of the white man for generations to come."

If only he knew then what we know now.

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