Telegraaf, politician say sorry for racial blunders over Mandela death

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While the world was in grief Friday about the passing of Nelson Mandela, a major newspaper and a politician from a major political party here have found themselves apologizing for racially insensitive public statements they made on Thursday regarding the South African leader’s death. Both Telegraaf daily and John de Laet, the Amsterdam West GroenLinks official, linked Mandela’s passing with the blackface Zwarte Piet tradition in the Netherlands.

Telegraaf’s blunder appeared on its website shortly after Mandela’s death became world news. “Just like in the rest of the world, there have been many reactions to the death of Nelson Mandela who happened to pass away on Sinterklaas night (which included zwarte piet),” an article on the paper's website stated. The article stayed on the site for 30 minutes and was then removed after a barrage of reactions from disgusted readers.

Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday at 95, seen here at the London School of Economics in 2000 (photo: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science/Flickr)

“This should never have happened,” the newspaper reacted on Friday morning. Its apology did the gaffe away as an internal joke that somehow made its way to the website. “This teaches us that it is never prudent to make jokes about sensitive and sad subjects while we are doing our journalistic work,” the newspaper stated.

John de Laet, an administrator for GroenLinks in Amsterdam West, said on Friday that his comparison of Mandela to the “hoofdpiet” (main piet) had been an unfortunate mistake. De Laet tweeted Thursday night: “Hey, is anybody still wondering whether the draw of the football world championships 2014 will be fair? After the death of the hoofdpiet.” He apologized.

Mandela’s death also sparked other Dutchmen to make insensitive statements on social media, that negated the anti-apartheid advocate to zwarte piet. “One less piet in the world; Mandela has left the building”, one person commented on Twitter; another wrote “Nelson Mandela has passed away. Zwarte pieten are in mourning”. And in Utrecht and Zoetermeer extreme right-wingers hung banners reading “Murderer’s Bridge” from the local Nelson Mandela Bridges.

The mistakes about Mandela’s passing are on par with news in the Netherlands over the past weeks, which has been dominated by the debate about what is racially insensitive and what’s not. Headlining this debate has been the portrayal of zwarte piet, the blackface helper of bearded do-gooder Sinterklaas who brings children gifts on December 5th.

Many Black residents of the Netherlands find the tradition racist and outdated, but their complaints are countered by predominantly native Dutch people who feel that Sinterklaas and his helpers are an integral part of Netherlands culture, and it should not be modified.