Obituary: Media’s vibrant young force

2013-03-17 10:00

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This week, the journalism fraternity reeled from the news that Mandy Rossouw had died of an aortic aneurism at 33. Ferial Haffajee remembers Media24’s larger-than-life international correspondent

One day, on a long drive back from a diplomat soiree, where I would occasionally bask in Mandy Rossouw’s glory, I asked her how she got made.

No, not like that, but what ingredients had gone into her ways, which were generous and kind, superconfident and tenacious. Mandy never shied away from asking tough questions of people at any time, but she managed to do it without damaging relationships or alienating anybody.

It was, she said, her first family: dad Cornell, mum Wilha and her twin sisters, Megan and Melanie. Her dad and teacher mum had embedded in her a “can do” spirit, which characterised Mandy. They had managed to do this by instilling a fundamental self-belief in their girls.

The family moved from Kleinzee in Namaqualand to Paarl, where they still live, though her dad died many years ago. In a country that still sets often impermeable borders around the prospects of coloured and black girls, Mandy’s “can do” spirit was phenomenal and came to infuse life, both personal and professional.

Mandy’s life was chronicled and remembered this week. She was certainly a young force in journalism to be reckoned with and she was a leader of the political corps. But her greatest talent was her ability to craft relationships and friendships, and, yes, I meant craft.

She embroidered them with attention, finding place for new friends, making foreign correspondents comfortable in her closest circle of friends, who include City Press’ digital editor, Liesl Pretorius; assistant editor Adriaan Basson and his wife, Cecile; Rapport editor designate Waldimar Pelser; City Press’ political reporter, Carien du Plessis; and her wonderful advocate friend Danie Smit.

They are (the past tense is a challenge when it comes to Mandy) a loving crew who are global citizens and who welcomed all Mandy’s adoptees into a circle of caring and growing. She had friends across the world, all of whom spoke about a person who was generous to a fault, and was deeply respectful but mischievous at the same time.

I also know her as an ace gossip and a hilarious mimic. She did near-perfect imitations of ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille.

The girl from Paarl made the world her oyster. When I met her, she wanted to make a move from Afrikaans to English newspapers. I was editing the Mail & Guardian at the time. My natural diffidence (and perhaps distance) means I don’t get very close to journalists, but these characteristics were useless in the face of Mandy’s dimpled charms.

I was snared from the first month to the last one I knew her, though I did my very best to hide it at the times she drove me crazy, with her foot always flat on life’s accelerator. I wanted her to take it slower and focus more. These were also impotent endeavours on my part.

Mandy’s quick pen, charming personality, deep networks and that rare ability to inveigle information from the most hesitant source, have proven themselves over and over again. Just last Saturday night, she got breaks on the story of Nelson Mandela’s medical tests before anybody else (as she had every other time he had been hospitalised).

As we left a punishing deadline, she drove back into the building to take up another shift to report the story of the health of the founding president. Who was to know that the old man would outlive this vibrant young soul? This week, as I helplessly watched the news of Mandy’s death unfold on Twitter and as my email inbox pinged bloody incessantly with tributes, her journalism and life were laid before us in delightful skeins.

She emerged by week’s end as Mzansi’s best journalistic friend and a daughter of the soil. Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum, the diplomatic world and from the full range of our rainbow nation. Our young colleague and friend, it turns out, was a bridge whose life crossed race, class and ideology – usually the divisions we continue to congeal into.

I’m not easily distracted from my work and usually have a fairly dispassionate relationship with death, but her death knocked City Press sideways. I could feel the grief in the newsroom and feel my own crawl all the way up my back. All I could do for the first day was read tribute after tribute and wish she would bounce her way into the newsroom, all shining Brazilian blow-dried locks, carrying a wonderful salad or a box of doughnuts as a characteristically generous treat for her colleagues. What I wouldn’t have given to turn back a clock this week.

Mandy was a stylish person. She eschewed anything but the best French Champagne, for example. She was fiercely independent, but I think she might have asked for help a little more, now that I know what stress she faced. Nothing was too much trouble for her, but perhaps it was.

She died of an aortic aneurism and had complained of chest and belly pains on Saturday night. Mandy was treated at hospital late on Saturday night, but aneurisms are hard to detect.

Mandy was Media24’s international correspondent, who made Pretoria’s diplomatic mile her own. If any of us needed a visa quickly, Mandy was our girl and she broke several important stories from a diplomatic corps she enjoyed hanging out with. She was out of the country more than she was in it and her battered pink suitcase was a symbol of a global citizen.

Early in her career, Mandy was Media24’s London correspondent. She travelled the world from there. From her new perch at Media24, she got to know her continent, writing iconic pieces on Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, and, finally, on Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the newly installed head of the African Union in Ethiopia.

Mandy was ambitious, fast and easily bored. Once in place as international reporter, she then told me she felt she wasn’t working enough and took on a political reporting role too. She then split her jobs, spending half her time at Eye Witness News because she wanted to branch out of print into radio. At the same time, she worked at Kyknet as a political analyst, and was also author and co-author of four different books, the last one called Kings and Kingmakers, a delightful simple guide to last year’s ANC national conference at Mangaung.

I now see Mandy’s rush to get things done as impelled by a force different to only the persistent talents of a remarkable member of Generation Y. For what it’s worth, she told several friends that she would not live past 40 years, but this was conveyed neither fatalistically nor dramatically, simply as a fact, now proven true.

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