Thursday, August 20, 2015

GOODBYE, SUZETTE: To Suzette Pretorius, you didn't just show me a better side of broadcasting - but of life. Thank you for the lessons, laughter and love.

I've been struggling through my own private grief and sadness since Sunday late afternoon when I was told about the death of a truly incredible person a few hours earlier, Suzette Pretorius, brand PR and publicity manager at the SABC's corporate marketing division.

Suzette Pretorius, who I've known personally for over 16 years, passed away on Sunday after a two year battle with cancer. Her funeral was today in Randburg.

For 5 days now I been unable to write about it. I still don't know what to say or how.

How she's helped me over the years. How amazing she was. How professional she was, what a great brand ambassador, public relations person for the SABC, and what an incredibly warm, friendly, proper lady she was.

Two years ago Suzette Pretorius told me the first time. She had grade three cancer. In June 2013 she went for an operation. Took sick leave.

She started treatment. Had to go back to hospital. And of course the other things like chemo which make your life different from what you thought it would be.

"I hope to be back at the office at 5 August," she told me in the same breath as telling me she had cancer.

I couldn't comprehend how someone fighting cancer (my mom battled breast cancer) could still focus on other people; could still think of work and let them know when she would be back so she could help them.

When I told her I'm praying for her and that she's in my thoughts, she told me: "Look after yourself, life is SO short!"

A few years back she was involved in a terrible car accident. I thought: "Why now Lord ... again?"

Suzette Pretorius wasn't just a professional media marketer, she became a friend - not just to me as a journalist and a TV critic over the years, but to many, many media, advertising, press and marketing people over decades, and a daunting number of people working both inside the SABC and outside in the larger industry.

Unlike a large number of people at the SABC these days working in PR and marketing who don't communicate, don't communicate properly, don't know how and don't care - and don't know how to approach people - the wonderful Suzette Pretorius was a brilliant asset to the public broadcaster: an incredibly hard-worker, a people's person in the purest sense of the word, and such an incredible representative of the SABC. Proof that some great people worked and still work there.

I got to know Suzette Pretorius (who used to be an air stewardess in her day) years and years ago when I first ventured into print reporting about the wonderful world of television.

It was long ago - when the SABC still mailed, by post, actual black and white publicity photographs of TV to the print media for shows like local drama series or sitcoms on the then TV1.

It came complete with photo captions typed on typewriter and glued to the back. A lot of those carried Suzette Pretorius' contact details (oh so professional) and with accompanying hard copy press releases held together with paper clips.

Suzette Pretorius eventually became the marketing manager at SABC2 (where Aletta Alberts, who is now the general manager of content at MultiChoice, used to be the SABC2 channel boss).

I could always count on Suzette Pretorius professionally - and I truly mean that, and I know that a lot of other journalists and editors and TV critics share the exact same sentiment.

She had such an incredible work ethic, combined with an amazing gentle, friendly presence. She wasn't a push-over my any means, but she was forever the gracious hostess: hovering, all-seeing, all-present, all there.

I never met her once where she didn't make me feel special. And I knew she did that to everyone - especially media, especially advertisers, marketers, and people who were stakeholders in how the SABC might be perceived.

She acknowledged everyone in a room, she knew everyone, she would look and listen to you when you talked, she was genuinely interested and Suzette Pretorius, more than anything else, believed that real relationships, and working hard at building them, are everything.

Now let me tell you. Suzette Pretorius was a lady. And I mean that in the greatest, bestest, most realest way possible. She was always impeccably dressed. Her hair ... always, always, always immaculately done.

Suzette Pretorius was the most "well-mannered", gracious person I ever knew. Humble and deeply thankful about the smallest things.

She was like the head girl version for grown-ups. One of those people who are just perpetually more than what we the rest of us are.

Those kind of people with charisma and presence who never stops introducing you to new people, who reach out, who seemingly never get tired, who only go to bed once you have gone to bed to switch off the light, who remembers what you told them last whether its a week or months ago, and who lights up the world for you.

This week was so hard.

I love television. And it's been incredibly difficult because so many really great things I've experienced where Suzette Pretorius and some other people stood at the portal to welcome me and to make me walk through and to enjoy it with me.

The SABC2 quarterly press previews (which for years now don't even happen anymore) were never any better than when she ran and organised and oversaw it.

There's been so many events and adventures and experiences within television over years that are always in my mind and over the past few days I would think of her and great things I and other journalists experienced and just cry.

In all my years as a TV critic she was the only one ever at the SABC (on a two day boat cruise about a decade ago on a "journey to nowhere" no less) to ask, in an official presentation, and specifically calling me out by name: "Please tell us what you think of us. What we did right this year, what we got wrong, how we can improve next year and what you liked and didn't like."

(I said nothing because she asked and I had too much respect for her to ever say anything bad back.)

During the maddest and most (not even upset, more thinking quickly literally on her feet) stressed I think I ever saw Suzette Pretorius become (and I don't think she even knew that I saw and heard) she just told dear Kinny sternly at a luxury Durban country club hotel when nothing at a media weekend worked out and everything was delayed, "quickly go get the press drinks and take everybody's orders - now Kinny, NOW!".

The press loves drinking and Suzette Pretorius always rose to the occasion to keep things together and cheerful during even the most desperate of circumstances!

Her work life was her passion and she lived for her job.

Over years she would follow and read stuff I wrote and did. She would say "thank you" for things that had nothing to do with her, wasn't her responsibility or involved her.

It never ceased to amaze me. She kept track. Not because she had to but because she wanted to.

I would write run of the mill stories about SABC TV licenses or some on-air SABC imaging that looks amazing, and unexpectedly I would hear from Suzette Pretorius would say "than you for taking the time to let people know about that, I'm so grateful".

How do you not want the respect of such a person and to be "better" for someone like that?

One of the last times I spoke with her, one-on-one just for literally hours was in the middle of last year.

I was actually supposed to attend something but I ended up not doing that and just sitting with her and just talking.

At the end of our long conversation (where she again introduced me to brand-new people walking by who she knew) about a half hour was me packing off about my issues with a lot of PR people in general, my grievances, my worries, my frustrations as a journalist.

"You know what, you just inspired me to be better ou Thinus," she said. And enthusiastically so.

That sentence (again) had a profound impact on me.

Here I was, just complaining - not even about anything she did or are involved with. And Suzette Pretorius made it positive, saw it as positive, and found it inspiring to try and be better for herself and what she did.

When I think Suzette Pretorius I think unquenchable optimism.

So many stories. So many moments. So many indelible moments I can't all share. Too many.

Suzette Pretorius lived the life she knew people could be: more compassionate, more really listening, more attentive, meeting others where they are at, a life more humble and more gracious.

Through what she did and how she acted she made you feel that every mistake is fixableand that every day or new chance or project brings a new opportunity to improve and do something better.

Suzette Pretorius didn't just touch lives, she touched my life.

And I will never forget her.