Tricky relationships

2019-02-20 16:19
Clive Ndou.

Clive Ndou.

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As political writers we have an immense interest in who, among politicians from across the political divide, will make it on to the final list of members of Parliament to be sworn in after the May elections.

This is because in the world of political writing, it is almost impossible to succeed if one does not have a decent relationship with key politicians — referred to in newsroom jargon as sources.

Politicians the world over prefer to dish out exclusive information to reporters they know and trust, as opposed to those they have not met before.

However, having said that, managing a relationship with politicians can be tricky, particularly as they have a reputation for exploiting the media for their own agendas. But for political writers, the solution is not found in the avoidance of politicians. Rather, the key is finding the best way to manage the relationship so that we can continue to produce objective and balanced stories for our readers. Failure to manage properly the relationships with politicians can have disastrous consequences.

Last year, the Sunday Times had to apologise for several political stories penned by reporters after it was found that the articles were planted by politicians with hidden agendas.

As political writers we don’t only run the risk of drawing the bad politicians into our fold, we also find it difficult to get senior politicians to co-operate with us when working on stories.

The truth is that well-established politicians are forever in a state of paranoia, and often the last person they want next to them is a journalist, let alone one they hardly know.

What tends to work best for a political writer is a situation where they develop a relationship with the politicians before they get elected as mayors, MECs or cabinet ministers. Such politicians somehow feel indebted to the reporter they were working with long before they even dreamt of becoming ministers.

However, the tricky part is identifying the lower-level politicians who have the potential to be elevated to high office. There were numerous instances where I did not get it right — many of the lower-level politicians who I thought were perfect candidates for elevation did not make it to the top. And there were many I thought were never going to make it to the top who surprised me.

One such politician was none other than our famous former Communications minister, Faith Muthambi, who was a backbencher in the National Assembly between 2009 and 2014.

I met Muthambi on several occasions when she was a backbencher and never bothered to establish a decent relationship with her — I just did not see her as one of the ANC’s rising stars.

When then president Jacob Zuma made her minister in 2014, I tried hard to establish a proper working relationship with her but it was too late, she never returned my calls. As a result of my poor judgment in this case, I could not get her to share with me any inside information about Zuma’s inner circle, including the extent of the controversial Gupta family’s influence in government.

Another low-level politician who I underrated was Pretty Xaba, otherwise known as MaMkhize — the assistant teacher known for burning impepho (incense) outside court during Zuma’s court appearances between 2006 and 2008. At one of the court appearances in Johannesburg, I asked Xaba for her cellphone number, with the promise of doing a profile on her. Not only did I renege on the promise, due to tight deadlines and other pressing political stories, I could not even find time to give her a call. However, to my surprise and that of many others, Xaba was elected an MP after the 2009 elections.

When I finally contacted her for a profile shortly after she was sworn in as MP, she had no recollection of me, and the big interview that would have lifted my credentials as a political writer never materialised. But the Muthambi and Xaba cases were not the only instances where I got it wrong — I also miscalculated the potential of former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

During my time as parliamentary correspondent for the now defunct SA Press Association (Sapa) between 2006 and 2008, Mazibuko, who at the time was the DA parliamentary communications officer, used to annoy me by knocking constantly on my office door to deliver the party’s press releases. For some reasons, she always came when I was on deadline. Even though I did not spell it out for her, I thought that she would help matters if she e-mailed the press releases instead of hand delivering them.

While Mazibuko might not have be able to read my attitude, one thing she must have registered was that I never had time for her — I just wanted her to give me the press releases and vanish.

As many know, Mazibuko was soon made MP and then the DA parliamentary leader. Our somewhat cold relationship may explain why I was not one of the reporters who were able to secure an exclusive interview with her during her term as parliamentary leader.

When I look back, I regret some of the errors of judgment I made and hope that this time around, the KZN politicians I am cultivating relationships with will go on to occupy high political office after the elections. However, given that politics is such an unpredictable game I also hope those politicians I have been paying little attention to in the province will be able to forgive me should the unthinkable happen and they find themselves cruising to Parliament.


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis
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