Friday, December 5, 2014

TV critic's notebook: Nelson Mandela's passing one year later - South Africa's TV critics reflect on when they heard the news, and what they did next.

It was exactly a year ago that Nelson Mandela passed away - the news coming as South Africa's TV critics and writers, the journalists and editors who cover television, all gathered in Johannesburg from across the country, not far away from Madiba's Houghton home, for the SABC's Summer TV content preview screening.

Midway through the SABC's Summer TV content preview screening at around 20:00 the atmosphere suddenly started to change as a disturbed restlessness invaded the gathering of journalists from Johannesburg and those from Cape Town and Durban who flew in. 

Whispers started spreading through the press corps. News, again, from colleagues and media friends filtering through - nothing confirmed and the public still in the dark - that Madiba is definitely not well. Really serious this time.

As the SABC press preview ended, journalists and TV critics rushed back to the Protea Wanderers hotel where everyone as part of the media contingent stayed just as president Jacob Zuma appeared on television to announce to the nation Madiba's passing.

This week I spoke with some of South Africa's prominent TV critics and entertainment journalists about that night, what they felt, how they remember it, and what they did next. This is their story.

"When I was there, I felt very close to it all because of physically being there," says Tashi Tagg in Cape Town, editor-in-chief of South Africa's authoritative TV portal, TVSA.

"We decided to simply run with the greatest Madiba TV moments and we chose only to do that because we felt that that made a very bold and emotional statement."

"The one thing that I did do, was that I felt very 'upset' in my hotel room by myself. I went downstairs and I went outside, and then came back in again. But that is how I responded. I did the story, TVSA put it up and then I just felt really emotional."

"The days after it was a case of remaining calm. We knew there was going to be a lot of info and you have to try and get all the TV channel changes and programming out as quickly as possible. Our strategy was to give people the most important stuff happening on television and the programming that was accessible to as many people as possible," says Tashi Tagg.

"We covered extensively what was happening on the SABC channels because that everyone can see. That was really the strategy and it actually worked quite well because I didn't feel overwhelmed by it."

Veteran entertainment reporter Deli Mncwabe from the Izoleswe newspaper in Durban says she still gets goosebumps thinking about the events of a year ago.

"I still feel exactly how I felt when I heard it. I saw it on Twitter. That there was something wrong at his home. We were all just a couple of minutes away from Madiba's home."

"Then I called one of my colleagues who confirmed and said there is definitely something wrong; something is happening since 16:30 in the afternoon.You could feel the mood changing. Then we all saw Debora Patta's tweet at around 19:00 saying 'we are waiting for confirmation from the president.' That is when we all knew: Something is wrong."

"Meanwhile the SABC had musical acts singing. Nobody could concentrate on the music. All of us the journalists were suddenly focused on something else, trying to find out more and what is happening. We are here, 5 minutes' drive away from one of the biggest news events about to happen."

"Then we took our shuttle picking us up from the SABC press event to take us back to the hotel and we asked the driver to please drive us to Mandela's home - that's when we ran into the police blocking the road. At that moment I knew: Mandela is really gone."

"I still cannot really describe how I felt. Especially now. It's hard," says Deli Mncwabe

Our of the whole group of TV critics and entertainment reporters attending the preview, she instantly adapted to the breaking news, instructed the driver to go as close as possible to the scene, and later returned after the rest were dropped off at the hotel.

"It was just my instinct. My mom is a Mandela, but in a long line of ancestry, but there is that connection. Something just told me 'go' - call it journalistic instinct."

"I went back to my room just like all the rest of us. I started watching TV, checking the news feeds and Twitter. I called my boss. Watching television, there was nothing yet there. I called people saying 'lets try and find a way to go back to his home to find out what is happening."

"I thought lets just take a cab. I want a cab to drop me near Mandela's house. Then there was a couple in the hotel, I heard then saying they also want to go there. So I instantly got in the same cab with them and went."

"When we got there people were started to mass at the corner of the street. Nobody knew anything yet but the crowds were growing. Candles. Singing. And then I called dad, my dad was asleep. I called a friend of mine, he was asleep as well. I thought: 'I'm one of the only ones who knew about this now but South Africa will wake up tomorrow to a sad day."

"After a while I went back to the hotel and immediately started writing for the Saturday edition," says Deli Mncwabe.

"The days following it was very hard. Seeing him so often on television, to every single South African he's become like a real family member. You have this special bond. Not to mention he's my role model. The following days were really tough."

"I had to write, I had to go outside my comfort zone. I had to do hard news, it was such a big news story. But with the help of my boss I succeeded. That's why I value our bosses' reaction, response, support. If it wasn't for that I wouldn't have survived that week," says Deli Mncwabe.

Veteran entertainment journalist Munya Vomo, senior reporter at Star Tonight in Johannesburg, wasn't at the SABC Summer TV press screening that Thursday night - he has a surprising story.

"It will sound as if it scripted, but what is interesting about my story is that I didn't go to the SABC preview. I had gone the movies. And believe it or not, we went to watch Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom at Cresta."

"I can tell you that when I got home after the 20:00 movie around 22:00 I switch the TV on and president Jacob Zuma was on. I couldn't believe it. I just came from watching this movie, and then the announcement of Nelson Mandela's death."

Munya Vomo says the following days meant a lot of additional work. "What I appreciated when I joined the company was that there was already a dossier, a Mandela dossier. When you're been in the news business for a while you know how to plan in advance for several things."

"These claims of his death kept happening over the years. This is a huge figure. If as a media outlet you didn't have a plan and a folder you wouldn't be able to comprehensively cover it all - from the days of him as a little boy, the boxing, his lawyer days, escaping the country, coming back, incarceration, all those things."

"Coming to trying to adapt to make it work, for the time when it happened, I remember calling Johnny Clegg the next day."

"He also had a very interesting relationship with Nelson Mandela, telling me his side of the story and a fun Q&A where he would give me assumptions of what would Madiba do if he was in Johnny Clegg's band, if he got to his house what would he cook for him, if he was to box any boxer who ever lived who would it be and why. All those kinds of things."

"It was a lot of lot of work, yes, but because we pre-planned this whole thing, the documented stuff helped us a lot. It was big. You couldn't ignore it. It was all everybody talked about," says Munya Vomo.