In 2016, I got a tip from a friend about an eerie new phenomena spreading across the internet. Following the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, people began reporting that they remembered him having died in jail sometime in the 1980’s. They claim to have no memory of his release from prison, his inauguration as the first black president of a post-apartheid South Africa, his Nobel Peace Prize, historic two term presidency, or the decades he spent as a prominent statesman and world leader. Their recollection is that Mandela’s death triggered a violent revolution, although they do not offer a cohesive alternate history. From the perspective of someone who lived through these events, and actively followed international affairs at the time, it is impossible to forget such an iconic public figure.
Throughout the 1980’s, the South African police state routinely attacked funerals for victims of apartheid. International awareness of the rioting in the segregated townships grew when Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in the 1987 film Cry Freedom. A decade earlier Biko had been beaten to death in police custody, and become an iconic martyr of the movement that Nelson Mandela went on the lead from prison. In the 1980’s major motion pictures had much deeper cultural penetration than the analog news media. So, it is logical to presume that people might misremember events, conflate two imprisoned foreign dissidents, and misidentify images of elderly Mandela, producing false memories.
Because I clearly remember watching Mandela walk out of prison in 1994, and lead South Africa until he voluntarily retired in 1999, I am not really capable of holding an unbiased opinion on whether it happened. No one has ever produced a newspaper or video clip to prove Nelson Mandela died in prison. The absence of any evidence to support the alleged memories of his premature death has not disabused those who believe they remember it occurring decades earlier. Why?
There are a range of psychological theories to explain why groups of people believe things which are manifestly untrue. To better understand why this particular false memory exploded into a popular phenomena, we can start with the person who coined the phrase “the Mandela Effect” in 2009. Fiona Broome is a paranormal investigator who was first published in Fate magazine in the late 1970’s, and has established a respectable reputation in her field. Broome describes the Mandela Effect as an uncanny coincidence, too many people having the same false memories. Broome has compiled reports from thousands of experiencers claiming to have memories that do not conform to the historical records. She does not endorse any conspiracy theories related to this phenomena, only that attempting to explain the phenomena is an interesting thought experiment.
So, that should be that. But, of course, that wouldn’t be worth writing about.
Mandela’s actual death in 2013 caused the phenomena described by Fiona Broome four years earlier to take on a life of its own. In researching the tip to investigate the phenomenon, I found that along with Broome’s own website there were dozens of strange Youtube videos that recounted the alleged proliferation of false memories. These Youtube videos did not take the rational moderated stance that Broome espouses. To the contrary, the videos asserted that the phenomenon had a known cause.
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