Journalists at government press briefings generally fall into two groups – the weary-eyed and the beady-eyed. The first group has seen it all before. They are the cool kids of the press pack, on a first-name basis with the important people; they lend these briefings a sense of importance. And they know best how these things work. They pitch up just in time for the actual start – 15 minutes later than the advertised time.
The beady-eyed, however, battle to conceal their eagerness. They arrive up to 30 minutes ahead of time and sit alone, ready to lap up every word offered from the podium. After a year on the job, this writer classifies herself somewhere in between the two groups. Much like poorly-timed shots in cricket, I’m usually offering the full face of the blade too early or, upon some restraint, hear a whoosh of moving air as my bat flourishes dramatically, only to learn the ball has long since passed. My feeble attempt at elaborate metaphors aside, I’ve yet to strike the right balance of jadedness and keenness that characterises the more experienced of the press pack.
The Department of International Relations and Co-Operation (Dirco) summoned journalists to a media briefing at the OR Tambo building in Pretoria this Tuesday. It was meant to be a highly edifying experience. For the price of driving to Pretoria, journalists would find out exactly how far the SADC (that’s the Southern African Development Community to the uninitiated) had progressed in their discussions on how to untangle hotbeds of conflict and unrest in Madagascar and the DRC.
Leaving for the Dirco briefing on Tuesday, I excused myself early from an editorial meeting with a sad heart – our meetings are actually a lot of fun – and packed my bags and headed north to Pretoria. I arrived at Dirco’s swanky headquarters expecting to collect an access card, park my car and hurry up the stairs to the media briefing room just in time to hear Deputy Minister Fransman read his statement – and I hadn’t even gotten lost on my way there. I might actually be wising up to this journalist thing, I thought, a hint of self-congratulation flushing over me.
I parked my car at the visitor’s entrance, alighted and headed to security to fetch my access card. I handed my driver’s licence to a bored-looking guard and waited patiently. I had a few minutes yet. He fumbled with two stacks of cards, checked with his colleague which stack he was supposed to use, typed my ID number into his computer, and then finally handed over the access card. But just as I was about to turn around, he asked what exactly my business at Dirco was. “I’m here for the press briefing,” I replied, confident that my words carried the same sway as Ali Baba’s “Open Sesame”.
The guard, however, looked perplexed. “Have you got accreditation?” he asked sternly.
“We don’t need accrediation,” I pointed out.
“Yes, you do,” he argued.
“But we never need accreditation when we come here,” I argued back.
“Yes, but this time it’s a SADC briefing.”
I hesitated, trying to remember if I had perhaps neglected to note the need for accreditation. Beginning to doubt myself now, I told the guard I would try to get in anyway.
“You can try,” he replied, “But the guards inside will not let you in.”
I decided to chance my luck, but just in case, I rang Clayson Monyela, the amiable voice of Dirco, as I swiped my access card at the boom gate and another security guard pointed out a couple of hefty police officers ahead of me and strange van parked to the right.
“When you drive past the van, drive very slowly,” he told me. I creased my brow in confusion, trying to work out what exactly the van was. Broadcasting equipment? Or was SADC keeping tabs on every car that made its way through the boomed gates? As I tried my best to drive as slowly as possible without grinding to a complete stop, a police officer motioned for me to go more slowly still. In the meantime, Clayson’s phone had gone to voicemail.
Nervous now that I wasn’t going to be allowed into the briefing, I neared the entrance of the parking garage, idled the car and tried Clayson again. This time he answered. “What’s this about needing accreditation for the briefing?” I asked him.
“Well, you see, the army has taken over the building,” he replied. “We don’t have control over who comes in and out because this is a high-level meeting taking place. There are ministers here.”
I was getting confused. “So, where do I get accredited then?” I asked.
“Well, we haven’t been able to get them to agree to allow the journalists in…” he trailed off.
“But I’m right here at OR Tambo,” I pointed out in vain, afraid now that it may have been a ploy to allow only a select number of journalists into the briefing.
“Yes, this is why we are thinking about calling off the briefing. Other journalists have already been turned away,” he said.
I was momentarily stunned. “But I’ve driven all the way from Jo’burg,” I said inanely.
He seemed to have made up his mind now. “I’m really sorry, but we’ve called off the briefing now.”
I protested, “Isn’t today a SADC deadline for Madagascar?” He promised me I wouldn’t be left out of any crucially important decisions the talking heads may have taken, and I could do no more than turn my car around and drive through the boom gates again.
I know I ought to feel a little more incensed. After all, I’ve driven all the way from Johannesburg only to drive all the way back again, but I know as well that a huge squeal at my own inconveniences would hardly be relevant. I had come to Pretoria to fetch the news, but there was no news to be had. And besides, the entire news cycle was so much bigger than me.
What could I really do? Bang on the gates of the OR Tambo building and let everybody know that I’d been greatly inconvenienced? I felt a little like a prima donna. This is what journalists do. Sometimes we get turned away from government buildings like beggars at the gates of the emperor’s palace. Other times we wait for hours in the sun, swatting flies in the gardens of the presidential guesthouse while we wait to hear if the African Union is about to admit that Gaddafi has lost control of his country. It’s the least glamorous part of the job – grazing in the sun like a flock of sheep, waiting to be herded to the next photo opportunity.
Driving away from the OR Tambo building towards the Union Buildings and then onwards to home, I realised that for all the attention to the byline, for all the purported glamour of seeing your name in print, or lights, this is humbling work. It really doesn’t matter if I drove all the way from Johannesburg, or Jerusalem. I could have been the most accomplished journalist in the country, but there really was no news to be had that day.
It isn’t all that bad, of course. Just that morning I had attended the launch of the African Economic Outlook at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton. My fasting constitution complained noisily at the sight of the princely breakfast set out before me. As I waited my turn for an interview with the chief economist at the African Development Bank, I watched as waiters scurried off with heaps of uneaten food. I fleetingly thought of the urban legends of Indian women who attend weddings only to fill their handbags with food. But all that food, the niceties of the five star hotel and the deference of the PR people are all just an entreaty from them to tell their story – a story I ultimately have little bearing on, except in my ability to tell it.
Sure, the entire Dirco episode does not reflect too promisingly on the ability of the International Relations folk and “the army” to communicate effectively with each other, or at least, organise themselves efficiently enough to actually get things done, but it proves as well how much of what we do as journalists is beyond our control. It proves how much we are at the mercy of the mechanics of the government to create the country’s political spectacle. And in the end, our own role in that spectacle is miniscule. For all the purported celebrity of journalists, we really are bit players in someone else’s story. DM