Talk Radio After Mandela's Death

A South African talk-show host reflects on his surreal day covering the passing of the anti-apartheid leader.
Nelson Mandela quiets a crowd at Harvard University in September 1998.

JOHANNESBURG — “Wake up! It’s happened! Put on some work clothes, and go to your studios to start planning now before the official announcement!”

That was the message at the other end of the phone on Thursday night, about half an hour before South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed the death of former President Nelson Mandela. The person who had called me was a senior South African journalist whom I trust wholeheartedly. And since there had already been an hour or two of nervous activity at the Mandela home in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, including a priest who had been seen entering the house, I knew that I need not ask her who her news source was.

The world’s most anticipated death was now an established fact.

“OK, thanks” I mumbled. And hung up. I remained still on my couch in the living room of my flat in the Johannesburg district of Sandton. Stunned. Numb. How could one be so overprepared, and yet utterly shocked, simultaneously, at the cruelest of life’s certainties: death? I felt a profound sadness that I last felt when a close friend of mine suddenly died earlier this year. And this made me realize just how deeply personal the loss of Mandela is. Wearing a commentator’s hat, it’s easy to speak of ‘us,’ of ‘our nation,’ but as the news hit me, it was clear that I had lost a parent. Melancholy washed over me.

And yet, at the same time, I was emotionless, really—like a Sartrean character too dumbstruck to act, to do anything other than just sit motionless on my couch and imagine myself as an object with no agency, no feeling, no capacity to transcend the moment.

But resilience is what Mandela’s name connotes, and what he has imbued our nation with, and so I found myself going through the motions of calling my boss, getting ready for my radio broadcast the following morning, and thinking about what I might say to my listeners.

I struggled to sleep, but had to. I am the anchor of a three-hour daily talk show on Power 98.7 in Houghton, Johannesburg. And I had to scrap my show plan and open the phone lines instead to hear reactions from listeners to what had just hit us all.

I woke up early, setting out to my radio studio in Houghton, literally a few hundred meters from Mandela’s home. I felt nervous. What do I say to my listeners? To the country? Should I sound somber? Do I resort to trite lines about the man’s great place in history? Do I merely allow the public to cry? Do I initiate a critical discussion about his legacy or is it callous, and way too soon, to have that discussion? Such is the false privilege of anchoring a talk show hours after Nelson Mandela’s death.

Presented by

Eusebius McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on the Johannesburg-based radio station Power 98.7 and is the author of A Bantu in My Bathroom.

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