The untouchable Robert Marawa

2014-06-22 15:00

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He’s Nkandla’s second most famous son and by far the best-known sportscaster of his generation. Before winter and the Fifa World Cup began, Percy Mabandu and Mawande Mvumvu sat down with Robert Marawa, SA’s boffin of the ball game

It’s just weeks before the 2014 Fifa World Cup kicks off in Brazil, which is making it even harder than usual to get time with Robert Marawa, affectionately known as Madluphuthu ­(isiZulu for pap eater).

As the voice and mind behind Metro FM’s 083 Sports@6 and SuperSport’s Thursday Night Live with Robert Marawa on DStv, the man’s schedule is as packed as Soccer City during a Soweto derby.

The country’s best-known sports commentator probably also has a fair bit of reticence about meeting with reporters. His career is, after all, standard fare in the tabloids.

After a number of emails, we settle for a series of one-hour chats before his evening slot on Metro FM at the SABC studios in Auckland Park.

This doesn’t guarantee his undivided attention though. There’s always something else going on in Marawa’s world. As he arrives at the studio, he is swarmed by his producer and throngs of guests coming to be interviewed on the show.

So we talk amid the fray, our exchange often interrupted.

Marawa carries a black leather zipper file that bursts at the seams with CDs, notepads and other journalistic utensils. He keeps digging into it to find one thing or another. His manner is deliberate and focused, but always genial and apparently unassuming.

The 41-year-old radio star wears an iconic baseball cap with an embroidered letter B. Perhaps it stands for Bob. At our first meeting, it’s a black one, matched with an untucked black shirt, tight black trousers and shiny black shoes.

Our small talk involves jokes about him being from Nkandla, just like President Jacob Zuma. Marawa chuckles and says: “Now since the village is famous for Number 1 and his homestead, everyone is asking me about it. People just didn’t care or didn’t know where it was before.”

His eyes scan the control desk with its sea of buttons, which looks like it belongs on the Starship Enterprise.

His quietly industrious producer goes about her job behind the scenes. She wears light make-up, black leather trousers and skyscraper-high stilettos. The two barely exchange words. Each one knows their part in conjuring up a highly technical broadcast as if by magic.

It’s a discipline that is not unlike the tightly managed flow of Marawa’s private time. He says he needs to regulate his activities because it’s easy to get sucked into the demands of his public life. There are endless sports events, gala dinners and VIP invites that make it easy to never get time off.

But in 2008, Marawa was forced to relook at his life when he found himself on an operating table at a Morningside ­hospital after a cardiac arrest.

“I almost died,” he says. He was on his way home from gym when it hit one evening. “I did not know what was happening. I was sweating, cold and felt a lot of unusual things and then I called an ambulance. Literally, I was 23 minutes from seeing 2Pac and those other guys, but I made it. You see, I used to think I was Tarzan and that I could do a lot of things, like not sleeping and eating trash.”

The anecdote provides a rare opportunity to get personal with a cautious and guarded subject. Why was he alone at home when he had the heart attack? Was he not seeing ­anyone?

“No, I’m single,” he says with a smile, adding that he has a three-year-old son, Awande, who lives with his mother. She works as a model in Australia.

The subject of his son brings a glow to his otherwise pensive face. He predicts my next question: “If you’re going to ask when I’m going to get married, you’d have a better chance of seeing a black pope.”

We all break into laughter.

Marawa makes it clear that he respects the institution of marriage. “I’ve got parents who’ve been together for close to 50 years. My mother, Phumlile, is in her late seventies and my dad, Frank, in his late eighties. For me that’s the ideal. A family is supposed to sit at one table over a meal and that is how I was raised. But my job is not easy because I work almost every day. So it will have to take a very understanding woman.”

When it comes to his job, they say Marawa is South African radio’s Mr Untouchable. Untouchable because he’s rated as the best in his field: the most informed, the first across the line on both radio and TV.

But also because it is rumoured that he enjoys protection from his old homeboy now residing at Mahlamba Ndlopfu.

We ask how close he is with Zuma. “Closeness is relative,” he answers. “I do not want to claim that I’m close, but we acknowledge each other. We have conversations when we meet at events. We’ve known each other for a very long time, before he even became president. I used to stay in Yeoville and he stayed somewhere in the Berea area. Those days he was driving a green Camry and still had hair.”

Marawa’s family had ideas for development projects in Nkandla and the president was naturally among the people they approached with their vision to improve the area.

“So we’ve had conversations with him about that, because that place can’t be rural like that forever. Part of the plan was a sports ground, clinics, a mall. Just to give people an opportunity to have a better life in the area they live in,” he says.

In fact, Marawa’s mother used to run a small shop in ­Nkandla when they lived there. The family has since moved to the coast near Durban. We joke that it was a timely move because they would have had to compete with MaKhumalo’s new tuck shop at the president’s homestead.

The laughter fades, though, when we ask him the tough question. The rumour – told to us by a source at the SABC and hinted at in the press – that Marawa was protected from above when acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng insisted he choose between working for the SABC and rival broadcasters – the Bonang situation.

Marawa reaches for that famous forthright tone. “Look, I don’t have a problem with Motsoeneng, I actually think he’s been great to a lot of people, especially [radio] freelancers who felt short-changed. I think it was easy for newspapers to run with my name and pursue whatever agenda they were trying to pursue. That’s what tabloids do. They target people.”

He rubbishes the idea that his powerful acquaintance intervened to ensure that he can work for several broadcasters.

Asked for comment on whether there's any truth to the presidential rumour, the SABC's Kaizer Kganyago flatly denied it. The presidency did not respond by the time of publication.

“I’m not the only person who does work for the SABC and another media company. You could park a Putco bus outside the SABC and fill it with such people,” he quips.

“My main brief is to do sport, whether for SABC, SuperSport or giraffes in a zoo?...?But whatever policies SABC comes with, one will respect those policies.”

Another frequent tabloid appearance involves the alleged tussle between Marawa and Pitso Mosimane, the former ­Bafana Bafana coach. Marawa insists that he has never had anything against Mosimane. “I never had any beef with Pitso. I believe he’s the one saying I was unkind to him when he was Bafana Bafana coach, but I have a role to play as a radio anchor to stimulate debate and to put issues forward.”

Talk of all this politics has turned the air heavy, so we change the subject to lighten things up. We take a trip down memory lane to the day he auditioned to become a continuity ­presenter at SABC1.

Marawa had always loved entertainment and sport, and had always dreamed of being a sports commentator.

He remembers that, as a child, he would record himself on a tape recorder while reading a newspaper out loud. He was mimicking the great broadcasters who were his heroes at the time. Guys like the SABC’s Martin Locke and Rob ­Robinson and ESPN’s Ahmad Rashad.

Continuity presenting seemed like a logical stepping stone. So when in 1996 the SABC was relaunching its TV channels and holding auditions for presenters, Marawa’s ears pricked up. “I walked from campus, came here and met the people who were conducting the auditions, although I was late ­because the closing date was a day before, but I got to do the audition for SABC1,” he recalls.

At the time, he was pursuing a law degree at Wits. When he got the job he carried on trying to juggle student life and TV work. But as he says: “Things happened on TV and I was not able to achieve the end result of graduating.” This also meant forfeiting a scholarship to go and study entertainment law in the UK. He managed to convince his parents that this was the right thing to do. It seems he was on the money.

What followed was an illustrious career that included being the anchor of MTN Soccer Zone, a runaway success that was attracting up to 12?000 SMSes an hour from viewers. Before Metro FM and SuperSport, there was Topsport and Laduma. It’s a path that has seen the boy from Nkandla shake hands with countless world figures and all four of democratic South Africa’s presidents.

And he did that on his own, with no one protecting him except the god of hard work.

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