Feed The Beast

I drank the Kool-Aid on Thabo Mbeki ‘s Zimbabwe diplomacy past midnight almost exactly seven years ago in a hotel room in San Francisco. It was administered by the late presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana, who was to die tragically of AIDS not long after. I have been a believer ever since.

Mbeki was on his last extended visit to US. As Business Day’s US correspondent, I had secured a seat on the Boeing 737 carrying ministers, officials and other ancillaries in the wake of the Presidential Falconjet. The trip took us from Washington to Atlanta via San Francisco and Austin, Texas, where Mbeki struck up a friendship with the governor, presidential candidate George Bush.

On the flight to the West Coast, Carol Paton, then with the Sunday Times, and I were joined by then Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin. I learnt most of what I know about trade policy that evening as Erwin gave us a private seminar on tariff peaks, bands and escalation, and South Africa’s position on such arcana.

As we got off the plane, Mankahlana approached conspiratorially and asked me to come to his room when we reached the hotel. He wanted to show me something. It was already late locally, and the time on my Washington body clock, three hours ahead of San Francisco, made it even later. But this seemed to good to miss. I was also quite surprised. Other members of the delegation had made it clear I was not their favourite journalist.

For the rest of the night and into the dawn, Mankahlana briefed me off the record, in detail and with documents to back it up. He described how his boss was working to head off Mugabe’s coming anschluss into white owned farms by trying to broker properly compensated land reform with funding quietly raised from Saudi Arabia and, if I remember correctly, Norway.

I knew I was being spun, but the spin checked out. As a result my trust was won. The tenor of my reporting and columns on Mbeki and Zimbabwe became more sympathetic. And thanks to Erwin’s readiness to spend time with Carol and myself, our writing on South African trade policy became more knowledgeable.

The rest of the trip provided further evidence of what effective media management could achieve. Mbeki’s views on AIDS were already controversial and nowhere more so than in San Francisco, ground zero for the epidemic in the US. The president did not, however, flinch from doing a roundtable with local reporters who naturally grilled him on the subject. In the following day’s coverage he received the benefit of the doubt. The same thing happened in Texas.

All this came back to me as I sat at the International Media Forum in Johannesburg this week listening to foreign correspondents whose work does more to influence elite global opinion about SA than any other channel. They were not a happy lot.

Caroline Lambert of the Economist said official communicators often seemed to consider journalists “a nuisance who have to be kept at bay”. The New York Times’ Celia Dugger recounted her amazement at being told by a very senior government spokesman that she was being presumptuous when she asked a question about the generals Mbeki sent to Zimbabwe to investigate voter intimidation.

Alec Russell of the Financial Times wistfully recalled his experience during a previous tour in SA in the mid-90’s, similar to my own in 2000. At that point, he said, journalists in SA had better access to government than they did in the US where he later served. No longer, and this was a problem. “Politicians are not doing their jobs if they retreat into a bunker”.

To be fair, officials and the mouthpieces have some legitimate gripes of their own. It is difficult to give reporters background briefings if they fail to abide by agreements to respect the confidence of briefers. But as Russell said, walling off all reporters because of one or two won’t play be the rules, is “bonkers”.

Journalist like Russell, Dugger and Lambert are not the enemy. They like this place. They recognize its importance, they want to get it right, and they are trusted by readers whose decisions have an impact on the lives of every South African. Feed the beast.

Published version archived here (firewalled)

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