Opinionista Ryland Fisher 20 May 2013

Vuyo Mbuli: They don’t come any sharper

Vuyo Mbuli, the voice and face of breakfast TV, passed away after collapsing at a rugby match on Saturday afternoon. The affable, thoroughly professional co-anchor of the SABC’s “Morning Live” show came as close to being the perfect presenter as you could get.

What makes a perfect radio and television presenter in a country as complicated as South Africa, where getting the demographics right often overrides all other considerations?

I’m sure when the powers that be at the SABC decided in 1999 to use Vuyo Mbuli as one of the co-hosts of Good Morning South Africa, which later became Morning Live, demographics played a role in his appointment. One cannot get away from the fact that over the years he has always been accompanied by a white woman as co-host.

In this way the SABC probably hoped to gain new, mainly black, viewers while holding onto old, mainly white, viewers.

Mbuli would have taken this in his stride and, as the years went by, he showed the big bosses at the SABC that he was much more than just a demographic: he came as close being to the perfect television host as you could get.

In the end, he became the main face and voice behind the success of Morning Live.

I never got to know Mbuli as a friend but, because the media industry is so small, our paths invariably crossed and I was interviewed by him a few times over the years in my various guises, whether it was to talk about media issues as editor of the Cape Times or as deputy chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum, or to talk about issues related to race in South Africa because of my writings.

The last time I spoke to him was a few months ago at a function in Sandton that he co-hosted with Leanne Manas, his co-presenter on Morning Live.

And like so many other South Africans, I woke up most mornings to Mbuli’s vibrant personality. I have never been able to understand how anyone could be so bubbly so early in the morning, especially when you are already at work before 6am.

Being in the media space often requires one to work abnormal hours. When I worked at the Sunday Times, I never knew what it was like to have Saturdays free, and when I worked at the Cape Times and later The New Age, I was at work every Sunday.

For Mbuli and his team, a normal working day would start while most ordinary people were still ensconced in their beds. They would not normally be able to enjoy going out at night because they had to be up before the crack of dawn every weekday morning.

After I woke up yesterday (Sunday) morning to the shocking news that Mbuli had passed away after collapsing at a rugby match in the Free State on Saturday afternoon, I found myself thinking most of the day about why there was such a public outpouring of grief and what it was that made him such a gem in South Africa’s broadcasting landscape.

Mbuli had the ability to make people feel at ease and to give the impression that he was really interested in their story. He would get them to tell him things that they might not have intended to share. But that is what great interviewers do.

A few weeks ago I saw him interview a man who was promoting a new soap powder under the guise of setting a Guinness world record. The man put a box of soap powder on the desk in front of him. Mbuli asked to see the box, appeared to look at it and put it on the floor next to him, out of sight of the television cameras. He dealt with this bit of ambush marketing professionally and diplomatically.

Part of what made Mbuli endearing to people across South Africa’s racial divide was his fascinating ability to understand different languages and cultures. He would often start a news cast with a greeting that seemed to last a few minutes, but included everyone in South Africa, whether you spoke one of South Africa’s 11 official languages or even Arabic and Hebrew, among others.

He seemed to understand that one of the ways of making people feel wanted and included is by acknowledging their language, so he would often make statements in languages that are not normally acknowledged in public spaces, even on the public broadcaster.

Mbuli had the rare ability to make people feel comfortable with him, irrespective of their racial, social, religious or other backgrounds. His laugh was infectious, but he often made his co-presenters feel uncomfortable when he tried to get them to do stuff that came naturally to him, like getting them to say his trademark “Sharp, sharp” at the end of broadcasts.

In a country as divided as South Africa, those in the media have the added responsibility of understanding the complexity of our society and trying to portray this in as sensitive a manner as possible.

Mbuli was a master at doing this and the SABC will struggle to replace him. It was not just about being able to speak all the different languages, or at least snippets of them, or his infectious laugh, or his ability to make those around him feel like they were all his closest friends, or his consummate professionalism. It was about all of the above and more.

South Africa is poorer without Vuyo Mbuli. DM

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