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SA mourns Mandela with dignity and dancing

We feared the country would lose itself in weeping when Nelson Mandela died. But we should have known better.

On Friday, South Africa danced and sung, ululated and toyi-toyed. There were tears, yes, and deep grief, but that was easily drowned out by the smiles that came as people shared stories not of the anguish they felt, but of the memories of the man they were celebrating.

It came as something of a relief.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, died on Thursday night.

Recently, there were uncomfortable meetings in many news organisations. Mandela was ill. To refuse to consider what to do when he passed away would lead to chaos and confusion and, quite likely, an insult to the man when the response fell short of what the moment demanded. It was not comfortable, but it was necessary.

Even in that fundamentally uncomfortable context, the issue of grief porn stood out as intractable.

The term, popularised after the death of Diana, the princess of Wales, is deliberately pejorative. It speaks to one of the worst sins the media commits: zooming in on pain and loss, reflecting it back, and magnifying it. Some persuasively link it to recreational grieving, others believe it can help to trigger cathartic grieving. Whatever the result, the excessive focus on the pain of strangers when a beloved public figure dies can be intrusive, disrespectful, and hurtful.

And has there ever been a figure so beloved as Madiba?

So news organisations, or at least those worried about such things, had to consider what do when South Africa realised it had lost the father of the nation. To ignore widespread, public outpourings of grief would be disingenuous; we must reflect reality. To dwell on such images, though, would be neither right nor healthy.

That conflict leads to the calculus of grief, which holds no acceptable answers. How many photographs of crying children is too many? What percentage of airtime do you give over to sorrow before you are committing a public disservice?

South Africa, with what sometimes seems as its limitless capacity to surprise, made the questions irrelevant. If you wanted pictures of crying children on Friday, you would have to be very careful to leave out of frame all those who were smiling. If you wanted to focus on sorrow exclusively, you had to crop out the celebration.

Foreign audiences in particular found the reaction puzzling. Why, asked anchor after anchor, were the people dancing? Because that is what we do when we are happy, we told them, and the passing of the giver does not nullify the gift.


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