by Gill Moodie (@GrubstreetSA) The classic Hollywood image of pushy reporters stabbing each other in the back and stepping over the body in the quest for an exclusive is often just that: a celluloid stereotype.
And it’s when the story becomes really difficult – such as with the ailing Nelson Mandela – that you find journalists sticking together and helping each other out with information, leads on the next development and contacts.
This may lead to some homogeneity of the news – and aside from Debora Patta’s scoop for CBS of Mandela’s ambulance break down, we haven’t seen many exclusive breaks in the Mandela story over the past month. In fact, the lack of genuine scoops is an indication of how challenging it has been to cover this story.
In both Pretoria – where Mandela has been in hospital for a month – and in the Transkei – where reporters are racing between Mthatha, Qunu and Mvezo covering the family fight over the remains of Mandela’s three children – journalists are battling with a lack of official information or are being chased away by police and security guards.
But amid the confusion, two local journalists told Grubstreet last week that the packs of foreign and local reporters are friendly and collegial with each other.
“You do have to help each other out although we are all also chasing scoops,” said Loyiso Mpalantshane, who is in the Daily Dispatch’s Mthatha bureau.
He estimates that were about 50 local and international journalists in Mthatha [during the week of July 1] and running between Qunu and Mvezo.
“It’s hectic in terms of work but at the same it’s quite exciting. There is a lot of secrecy around the Mandela family and there is heavy security. At Qunu you’ve got police officers manning the entrance 24 hours a day and at the Great Place (of Mandla Mandela) at Mvezo there are security guards so we’re being chased away most of the day.
“It really depends on the number of contacts you have and if you have any people on the inside… The best bet is to get the information and then confront the Mandelas to confirm or deny – and in most cases they do confirm.
“And we also depend on sharing information among ourselves and sticking together and listening to the word on the street and sharing ideas.”
While some of the action took place in the Mthatha high court, the situation in Mvezo is difficult because the people of the area are not keen to talk to journalists.
Mandla is known for being easily irritated, Mpalantshane says, and the villagers are worry about appearing to undermine his authority while those who are close to Mandla such as people from the traditional council or those involved in Mvezo community projects are talking in support of Mandla.
The steel fence around the Mvezo homestead that was broken open so dramatically with a pick axe last week by a sheriff of the court so that the three Mandela children’s bodies could be exhumed and moved back to Qunu only went up two weeks ago, he says.
“We were told it was to prevent the prying eyes of the media and tourists,” Mpalantshane says, “and people they say who come in and take pictures without asking permission.”
Sowetan reporter Lindile Sifile told Grubstreet that one of the most exhausting things about covering events in Mthatha has been the large amount of driving on bad roads and, in fact, he was involved in a car accident between Mvezo and Qunu last week though he was not seriously injured.
Fellow journalists stopped to help after the accident, Sifile said, and gave him and the others from the wrecked car a lift.
“We are journalists and we are competitors,” says Sifile, “but at the end of the day we are communicating with each other.” Especially in the evenings when the journalists gather to have dinner at the only restaurant in Mthatha, Mike’s Kitchen.
Things outside the Pretoria hospital were also a bit chaotic last week, says eNCA reporter Sibongile Mkani-Mpolweni, because of the well wishers who keep coming and going.
“They come in groups and in buses,” she says. “On Thursday there were people from an old-age home dropped off and NUM members and then Cosatu members so people keep coming and then they sing and pray. And then there are individuals coming with their children and bouquets and messages written on paper wishing Mandela well. The international media is all over the place…and then there are those that are selling ANC gear and Mandela stuff.
“It looks a newsroom outside the hospital,” Mkani-Mpolweni says. “The international media have tents because there is no parking so they have been camping out in their spots for days. Our satellite van has been there since the 8th (of June, when Mandela was hospitalised) and we’ve hired security to guard it because we don’t want to move it. ”
People who live in the Arcadia flats around the hospital are charging the media to use their toilets, she says, or to use their parking spaces.
For the journalists in Pretoria, getting information out of the presidency is proving a challenge for everybody.
“You have to phone (presidential spokesman) Mac Maharaj and sometimes he doesn’t answer, says Mkani-Mpolweni, “or the presidency will tell you: ‘Wait for a statement. We’re not saying anything at the moment. We will release a statement when the time is right’.”
– SA’s leading media commentator, Gill Moodie, offers intelligence on media – old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet.