Reporting Madiba - then and now

is a BBC World Affairs producer. Twitter: @stuartdhughes

I’m sitting outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital on Celliers Street in Pretoria.

On the other side of the hospital wall, the former South African president is in a critical but stable condition undergoing treatment for a recurring lung infection.

On this side, dozens of satellite dishes point skyward like sunflowers craning towards the light. Reporters and engineers are camped out in deckchairs waiting for the latest news on the 94-year-old’s condition. This must be one of the largest gatherings of international journalists in the world today.

The sound of well-wishers singing and praying for the Father of the Nation competes with the constant hum of generators powering the broadcasting operations.

Indeed, the presence of so many members of the international press corps here at the hospital has upset some members of the Mandela family. One of Madiba’s daughters, Makaziwe, described the media as “vultures” who are “waiting… for the last of the carcass”.

Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie has tried to placate the media. She travelled to Soweto last week to thank those of us gathered outside her former house on Vilakazi Street, which is now a museum.

The news industry has changed beyond all recognition in the 23 years since Mandela was released from prison. But one journalist who has lived and worked through the changes is the BBC’s veteran world affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge. He was one of the few British journalists to witness Mandela’s release, in the days before dozens of rolling 24-hour news channels, modern digital technology, social media and mobile phones.

In February 1990, as word began to spread that Mandela’s release was imminent, Wooldridge chartered a plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town with a group of foreign journalists. He managed to drive to the gates of Victor Verster Prison before Mandela walked through them - but he had no way of filing live reports back to London.

“It was fantastic being there - we knew that Mandela was coming out - but my next thought was ‘how on earth am I going to tell this story?’” Mike told me.

None of the local villagers were connected to the phone network. Wooldridge was faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem.

But fate intervened when a telephone engineer came driving down the road at just the right moment. “He pulled over, we got chatting and I explained my predicament,” he recalls.

“The end result was that he dropped a line down from the overhead telephone cable, put a handset on the end of it, and then produced a contract for me to sign.   

“I think it cost me 240 rand [just under £16 in today’s money] and it meant I had a telephone line right opposite the prison gates in the middle of nowhere.”

When the crowds began to swell, Mike clambered on to the roof of his Volkswagen Golf to get a better view as Mandela emerged into the sunlight.   

As the world saw Mandela’s face for the first time in 27 years, via pictures provided by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, an enterprising telephone engineer and a thin strand of copper wire enabled Mike to commentate live for the BBC on one of the most iconic moments in modern African history.

Mike Wooldridge reporting from South Africa today

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