Nelson Mandela Obituary Mistakenly Aired In South Africa: Madiba Is Not Dead

on April 03 2013 8:30 PM
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela in 2000. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

South African icon and former President Nelson Mandela is alive. But if you were watching the South African satellite network DStv earlier this week, you might think otherwise. The station mistakenly broadcast an obituary for the ailing Mandela on Tuesday night.

It is common practice for media outlets to compose obituaries for aging figures in advance, in order to have the in-depth content ready as soon as tragedy strikes. But DStv went one step further, and the premature news item went live.

DSTV is run by Universal Networks, a division of NBCUniversal, which came under full ownership of Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ:CMCSA) in February.

The clip, called “Remembering Madiba 1918-2013,” aired multiple times before the network realized its error. Madiba, Mandela’s tribal name, is often used affectionately to reference the man who was elected the country’s first black president in 1994, after decades of white minority rule.

Troy Martens, a spokesperson for the Women’s League of South Africa’s ruling political party, the African National Congress, criticized the error.

“From an educational perspective it looked quite informative, but certainly had the potential to cause undue alarm in light of the current circumstances,” she said, according to Daily Guide, a Ghanaian newspaper. “It was highly irresponsible and disrespectful to the Mandela family.”

Universal Networks issued a contrite statement on Wednesday.

“We unreservedly apologize to the Mandela family, to Universal Channel viewers and to DStv subscribers for the alarm and offense caused by this error. Our thoughts and best wishes are with Madiba and his family for a speedy and full recovery,” it said, according to UPI.

The 94-year-old Mandela was hospitalized last week due to a recurring lung infection. He has yet to be discharged, but South African President Jacob Zuma released an optimistic statement on Wednesday.

“President Nelson Mandela continues to make steady improvement in hospital,” it said.

“His doctors say he continues to respond satisfactorily to treatment and is much better now than he was when he was admitted to hospital on the 27th of March 2013. He has been visited by family and continues to make steady progress.”

Mandela is revered as the father of modern South Africa. He came of age during the era of apartheid, or institutionalized racial segregation. After years of underground activism on behalf of the African National Congress, which was outlawed until 1990, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

Mandela was elected president in 1994, marking the de facto end of apartheid. During his five-year tenure, he made it his mission to promote equality and progress for all South Africans, emphasizing his belief that white and black citizens had to work together to heal old wounds.

The ANC has dominated the national government since 1994, and economic growth has made South Africa the largest economy on the continent. But the country still suffers from deep divisions and a yawning wealth gap; Zuma and other ANC leaders have been accused of fostering endemic corruption.

Mandela has been largely absent from this drama. Having contracted tuberculosis during his years in prison, Mandela now suffers frequent lung infections. He has not made a public appearance since 2010. Despite all of this, Mandela’s reputation remains untarnished. It is still too soon for any prepared obituaries to hit the presses -- but if DStv’s slip-up is any indication, the remembrances are sure to be glowing.

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