Opinionista Tony Jackman 30 June 2016

When Iqbal met Charlie

When you’re a journalist you get to meet interesting and famous people, like Dr Iqbal Surve and Prince Charles. I’ve met both of them. I was somewhat more impressed with the latter.

I met Prince Charles by accident, in July 1997, a month before the mother of his children was to die in a wrecked black Mercedes Benz in an underpass in Paris. The venue was Powys Castle, his princely seat in Wales. I had once impersonated him – or at least his voice – in a small contribution to The Big Big Brunch one Saturday morning on SAfm, having been very familiar with his vocal delivery. So it was going to be interesting to meet the rest of him.

I say “by accident” because I fortuitously found myself tagged on to a group of South African journalists who’d been invited to be our contingent to a garden soiree in the Powys Castle grounds alongside groups of journalists from other countries including India, France, Spain, Australia and Canada. (Oh, and Ireland. They arrived late, and drunk.)

The British Tourist Authority in Pretoria had arranged some media forays for me in the UK, and since I was going to be there when the royal event took place they asked the prince’s people to include me. So, yes, one day I opened the postbox to find a letter with a royal stamp on it and a letter beginning, “HRH Prince Charles takes great pleasure in inviting…”

However, unlike Dr Surve, who today is the owner of the Independent stable of newspapers, I do not now think of the prince as one of my chums, a good mate who invariably invites me to pop into Highgrove for Earl Grey, shortbread and a chit-chat about his mum whenever I’m in the neighbourhood.

Fin24 this week, (Fact checking Iqbal Survé’s bold bio leaves more questions by Terry Bell), quoted a Leadership article saying Surve maintains he is a “Fellow of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability programme”, and that last week he amended this to “an inaugural Fellow” who had “been honoured by being invited by HRH the Prince of Wales many times to Highgrove as a Fellow of the programme”.

Terry Bell reported that there is no such fellowship, and that Surve is in fact an alumnus of a Cambridge University programme that does award fellowships, two of which have been bestowed on prominent South Africans, but neither of whom answers to either “Iqbal” or “Surve”. The programme’s Cambridge headquarters confirmed to Bell that Surve had been a speaker and faculty member of the programme, but not a Fellow, and that the programme had written to the good doctor “asking him to desist from using such a title”.

Unlike Dr Surve, who may or may not have met the prince and shaken his hand (or not), I did get to meet him. This is something that just goes with the job – you meet all manner of people that you wouldn’t otherwise. It’s not because you’re important, or because of who you are, but because of what you do. When your job is to hold a mirror up to society and reflect it back to that society, you truly do get to meet, know and understand paupers and kings, while seeing first-hand both the splendid garden party and the prone victims of a gang shootout or a beach picnic drowning. You never get rich, you generally scrape by, but your compensation is the life you live and the things you see.

So yeah, when you get an invitation like that, of course you grab it.

Quite a nerve-wracking experience, I don’t mind saying. There’s protocol, you see. You’re drilled by the royal minders about what to say, what not to say, when to say it and when not to say it, and most specifically there were to be “no questions”. You’re told only to speak if he first speaks to you, and then, when you reply, to end your first reply with the words, “Your Royal Highness”. Thereafter, should he continue speaking to you, which would call for you to say something else, you’re to end your reply by saying “sir”. You’re to continue ending your replies with “sir” until such time as it is your final reply, which you are to end again with “Your Royal Highness”.

Now the thing is: how the hell do you know whether the current reply is indeed the final reply and that he won’t ask you something else? You cannot know. So, instead of listening to what he’s saying, your mind is twisted in knots while you try to remember when to say Your Royal Highness, and when to say sir, while remembering not to ask any questions even though your job as a journalist is to do exactly that, so that even the next morning I had no recollection whatsoever of anything either he or I had said other than your, royal, highness and sir. And I doubt if he remembered either. To this day I have no memory of saying anything but “blah blah blah, Your Royal Bloody Highness”, and “blah blah blah, sir”, while sweating in columnist James Clarke’s navy blazer (sorry James) because I hadn’t thought to take a jacket with me.

Is that how Prince Charles remembers the occasion? No, man. The poor bloke meets dozens of people a day and is numbed by having to think of something intelligent to say himself, when what he’d really like to do is pour himself a double Scotch and watch EastEnders on the telly while munching Duchy Originals Oaten Biscuits. It’s how the royals keep up with what the ordinary people are like. That and having The Only Way Is Essex on repeat.

But mention my name to Prince Charles and you’ll get a blank. (And I hope that’s the only thing I have in common with Dr Surve.)

***

I met Iqbal Surve soon after he bought Independent Newspapers and me with it. When you suddenly find yourself having been acquired by a former dentist who claims to be a good mate of Nelson Mandela’s, you pay particular attention to what they do and say.

Not long after he’d bought us, he convened a massive staff meeting at Newspaper House in Cape Town to which everyone had been invited. By “invited” read “required to attend”. It was massive and ostentatious. There was food and drink for Africa. We’d never seen anything like it. Usually, the best you can hope for at a meeting of editorial or advertising is a couple of plates of tired mini sausage rolls and cocktail sausages with some tuna mayo sandwiches and maybe some bowls of Simba chips. Nah-ah. Wide-eyed journos were stuffing food into their mouths, onto plates, into their pockets, into their shoes, like Mr Bean. Many a journo’s family ate free that night once they got home. You’ve never seen so many happily bewildered hacks.

When The Man arrived he and his entourage made a rock star’s entrance, with thumping music, and then we watched a supposedly visionary video about the “new” Independent, before he took the stage and the microphone. There was going to be change, and we must not fear change, there definitely wouldn’t be any retrenchments (Hah!), and if many people present in that vast room would soon not be working for the company, many others would, if they threw in their lot with the new way of things. The rest would sort of choose to leave rather than be retrenched. Something like that. Anyway. Same diffs in the end – some of you are out the door.

And then he told us, with eyes ablaze and Those Teeth – the ones cartoonists love to give emphasis, not that they need any – about how he and Madiba had been Like This, and how “(Mandela) said to me, just before he got ill, ‘Iqbal, are you still the same?’ I said to him, ‘Tata, I am still the same.’ He said, ‘Now I can go.’”

The sound of jaws dropping could be heard for several city blocks. Every journalist in the room looked down, shuffled their feet, glanced at one another. The sound of eyebrows raising could be heard in Muizenberg. The sound of muffled chortles disturbed the birds in the Company’s Garden aviary.

At least two people in my vicinity were heard to mutter under their breath, “Bring back the Irish” (one of them may have been me). And that was saying something. The Irish were Tony O’Reilly and his ilk who had spent years and years keeping the company barely alive on a drip, taking from it rather than investing in resources.

One thing led to another, and then another, and then some more, and by the time mid-2014 came around, many of us were out of the company, not having made it through a bizarre fire-and-rehire process that required sub-editors to apply for their own jobs.

The thing that really made my blood boil was watching as the man got rid of Janet Heard and later Tony Weaver, among a slew of others shown the door, not least editor Alide Dasnois, all painted as a white old guard who needed to make way for transformative appointments. But Weaver is a Struggle hero among journalists. All of us who worked for Cape newspapers in the Eighties were in awe of “Weaves” as he chased down every apartheid crime and tried to expose it, even if it meant being detained.

In late 2013 I buttonholed Surve after a Cape Times staff meeting in which he had berated Weaver and Heard, introduced myself and told him straight: “Dr Surve, you don’t seem to know that Tony Weaver is a struggle hero, you need to treat him with respect.” He smiled, nodded and ignored it. His opinion – or what he chose to believe – evidently counted more than that of a veteran staffer who actually knew the score. When I later made a naïve intervention in the hope that the Cape Times and what it had stood for could be saved, I regretted having done so and felt a fool.

When you left the man’s rock-star staff powwow that weird afternoon, you were given a goodie bag, with free movie tickets in it and stuff. What they should have put in the goodie bags was respect for new colleagues, trust in their journalistic abilities and integrity, and the humility to know that, when you buy a new toy, it’s a good idea to follow the manufacturers’ instructions, or trust the professionals who know how best to make use of that toy. Or at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

I never did get to meet Mandela. Surve has one up on me on that. But if I had, I’m sure Madiba wouldn’t have remembered me any more than he remembered Iqbal Surve. Or any more than Prince Charles remembered me. DM

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