Western media criticizied for planting surveillance cameras for when Nelson Mandela dies

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Nelson Mandela, now 93, is making fewer public appearances and many South Africans are wondering what the country's post-Mandela future will look like. (Photo by South Africa The Good News, via Wikimedia Commons, cc-by.)

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 South African freedom fighter.

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Locals are outraged, accusing the agencies of offending their culture and acting like vultures around a dying lion.

In Qunu, photographer Charlie Shoemaker takes pictures of children performing a traditional song and dance at a coming of age ceremony. Shoemaker, a freelance photographer from the U.S. 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 (is to) prepare and be here for when Mandela passes,” Shoemaker said. “Because it’ll be 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 say 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,” one man said said. “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 cameras, but have since removed them. Meanwhile the police have launched a criminal investigation. Many locals 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,” the man 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 Shoemaker say they respect the local culture, but there’s also “the news.”

“I don’t think it’s disrespectful for publications to prepare for death of someone on Mandela’s scale,” Shoemaker said. “We can all agree Nelson Mandela is an important person. We all agree that when he passes it’ll be a big global piece. 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 neighbors or hiding cameras and that his work is not problematic. But being respectful can mean different things for Western and African journalists, said 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 Nelson Mandela’s death, what are you doing today?’" Boya said. "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. We know he’s going to die, just like you or I are going to die. But setting it up like that I don’t think is right."

Boya hopes the camera incident will 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 continue to plan for the day Mandela passes away.