“I am a good guy.”
Lungile Tom. That was no lie.
His giant stature could not equal in measure to his lust for life, his love for his family, his deep spirituality, and his care for, and kindness towards his colleagues.
Lungile is the first-known South African journalist to succumb to COVID-19 on Wednesday morning, the 13th of May.
A week earlier, he was telling South African stories of life under lockdown.
Just two days earlier, he texted us from his hospital bed saying he was feeling better.
Several young journalists stepped in front of the harsh lens of a live television broadcast for the first time, with Lungile behind the camera. He wanted you to look and sound your best, and it was an affront to him if you felt nervous.
“It’s going to be beautiful, maaaan.”
He arrived at eNCA in 2013, having previously worked for CNBC. From the day the e-family welcomed him, there was no stopping that force of nature.
His enthusiasm for his work was unparalleled. If he had favourites among us, he never showed it. Each of us were precious to him. And he didn’t let a day go by without letting us know it, even if just to plant a kiss on top of your head as he went out on, or came back from, a shoot.
Lungile immersed himself in every story — whether it involved a day on the beach, on a yacht, a sports field or the steps of Parliament.
Just recently he was captured grooving behind the camera to Rosa, an old Cape Malay folk song, a testament to his appreciation for all people and all cultures, and of course, his love of music.
Most reporters who sat alongside him in a car have a music video shot or a sing-a-long with him, much to the amusement of an intern sometimes sitting in the back seat.
When he wasn’t jamming in the car, he was teaching his colleagues isiXhosa. In return, he wanted to improve his Afrikaans. It was important to him that everyone be seen, respected and valued.
Journalist Lester Kiewit, who spent years working with him, says their many road trips gave him an insight into Lungile’s life beyond their collegiality in a newsroom.
“Lungile described himself as a hell-raiser growing up. A liker of things. This often got him into trouble,” he told me. “Adulthood he said, had given him focus and a sense of direction.”
Lungile took his role as a senior video journalist very seriously. He not only mentored young camera operators, he wanted new reporters to shine too.
“Without Lungile I would never be working as a television reporter. He filmed my screen test for a job at eNuus, and he saw I was panicky and stiff. He told me to breathe, coached me to express myself, calmed me and helped me to do a lot of takes until he was happy with my improvement. He told me I would get the job, and I did,” says Nadine Theron.
Recalls camera leader Kyle Haffajee: “He would go out of his way to assist his colleagues and friends, even if it meant putting himself out.”
His attention to detail extended beyond the lens. Lungile quite fancied himself a natty dresser. Kiewit says Lungile claimed his love for clothes was a “hangover from his youth”.
If you lost Lungile along the way, you could literally sniff him out by the latest eau de parfum.
“He was probably the most stylish person I knew. He always came to work dressed up. You would never say he was about to film a flood or fire on the mountain,” says Haffajee.
eTV anchor Annika Larsen says appearance was important to Lungile.
“He always wore a shirt to Parliament because, like me, in this old-fashioned kind of way, felt it was only right to look smart. He loved the president. Especially if we chased him for a sound bite. He loved Captain van Wyk and his sniffer dog who came on to the precinct early in the morning. He just fitted in.”
He would be very proud to know his work at Parliament did not go unnoticed.
“Through his sharp eye and knowledge of Parliament, Mr Tom brought the often intricate workings of the institution to many South African homes. His news footage demonstrated remarkable passion, experience and creativity,” reads a tribute statement from the legislature.
Parliament is often not the most exciting assignment for a cameraman. But Lungile was patient during the long days and his energy never waned. He was agreeable to any suggestion that would improve the product, and on more than one occasion, he wanted to berate a certain MP for always refusing an interview when I asked.
He didn’t think it was fair, or that I deserved to be treated that way.
His last assignment there included reporting on the shutdown of Parliament ahead of the lockdown. Some of the last filming he did at the legislature was of staffers being screened for the very virus that has claimed his life.
As the tributes stream in, they are all accompanied by dozens of photos. Our Lungile loved to snap pics out in the field. So great was his pride in his work, that he wanted it all documented, and if you weren’t willing, he would just take selfies.
Says eNCA sports reporter Justin Ford: “He believed if there were no pictures, it never happened. He loved what he did, and the people he met along the way.”
Late at night, when you were ready to put the day behind you, your phone would buzz. A slew of pictures would come your way. He would send them all, because he couldn’t decide which ones were best. One sometimes wondered how Lungile managed to film anything.
“He wasn’t shy to ask famous people or politicians to hold the phone and press the button. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma are just two of former presidents who’ve had the privilege of being snapped with Lungile Tom,” recalls Kiewit.
It was important to Lungile that you felt well and comfortable with him, even on off days. His sense of humour was his magic trick.
Writes former eNCA journalist Paula Chowles from San Francisco: “Lungile was always the happiest and most positive cameraman I worked with. He’d find laughter and lightness in most situations and it felt good to be around him.”
Adds another former eNCA journalist, Pheladi Sethusa: “Lungile was truly the personification of larger than life. His smiling eyes and hearty laugh stole our hearts and made even the worst days, or shoots, better. Even on his worst days, making others smile or laugh was his top priority. It was his superpower. He gave of himself fully, and we will carry the pieces with us,” always.”
Returning to work after surgery, another former eNCA journalist, Leigh-Anne Jansen, now looks back on an evening fuel price hike story as one of her best with Lungile.
“It was cold. I was sore. But Lungile would crack jokes and play some of our favourite tunes to take my mind off the pain.”
And of course, there’s a music video to capture that night.
Just a week ago, Lungile started feeling flat while out on a shoot with reporter Monique Mortlock.
“He wasn’t feeling well, but still told me to take pictures of him. I said: ‘Jy’s siek, maar jy will nog pics he? He jokingly said: ‘Hey man, it might be the last pics of me on the job.’ ”
And so they were.
Ayesha Ismail had the honour of going on that final assignment Lungile would shoot for eNCA, only five days before he died. They had worked together for some months, telling human interest stories.
A particularly poignant picture of their storytelling was taken of him sitting on a paint drum outside the Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square talking to refugees.
He wanted to understand their position.
“After much talk and laughter he returned and said: ‘I understand where they are coming from, but I told them you have to give and take. You can’t always have everything your way.”
On their last assignment, Lungile told Ismail he wasn’t feeling well: “But don’t worry sisi wam, I’m going to finish this job with you, and go to hospital, tomorrow.”
Back at the office, he insisted she take some oranges he had in his bag, to break her fast.
“He was living proof that your siblings are not only your blood relations. He was a brother far away from home. Our chats and phone calls always ended with him saying: “I love you always. Remember that,” says Balungile Dlamini, the only female camera operator in the closely knit Cape Town team.
Lungile spoke proudly of his children. He wanted them to be disciplined people. He was a man who loved love, and to love. No one more so than his beloved wife, Nandipha. Lungile’s weekend Instagram posts displayed their love story and how much he adored her.
Go softly, our gentle giant. You caught us off guard. You protected us all so fiercely, and now remind us that journalists are not as invincible as we sometimes think. Some of us didn’t get to take one last selfie. But, we thank you for insisting on documenting our time together in this transient life. It’s all we have now to keep your memory alive. Take pictures with the angels. You were certainly one to us. DM
The fur of a Chinchilla is so thick it will suffocate fleas.