How significant is the award to you?
I must be honest, I’ve always felt a little oppressed by those ‘you can have this eight-pack in six days’ covers of the magazine, and so it’s wonderful to know that the magazine is looking at a whole lot of different ways of how to be a successful male!
According to publicity material for the awards, “the difference (the finalists) made in everyday life for the good of society” was taken into account. What difference do you believe you have made?
If I have, I hope it’s towards helping people understand that our leaders are flawed and human, rather than demigods, and that we – and not them – are responsible for our destiny. I also hope that I’ve helped develop the culture of reading and intellectual inquiry in our country.
Is there life after Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred?
Not for a while! Mbeki’s still in power, and so much has happened since I published the first edition, that I have to keep on working. I’m currently working on an updated, abridged version for the international market, and a book of essays, provisionally entitled The Second Transition, for Jonathan Ball, that will try to make sense of the post- Polokwane environment. When that’s done, I can get creative! I’m hoping to do an imaginative journey into my Irish-Jewish family and how they came to South Africa.
Why did you become a journalist?
I always knew I was a writer, but I thought it would be fiction. I got drawn to journalism because I needed to make a living, and I wanted to be in the world.
For which piece of information have you had to work the hardest in your career?
The pseudonym Thabo Mbeki used when writing for the African Communist. It was ridiculous, in the mid-2000s, so many years after the death of communism, that not even Mbeki himself was able to remember it. Eventually, after much pleading, Essop Pahad (Minister in the Presidency) handed it over to me on a scrap of paper as if he was giving me the code to the South African gold reserves vault, and pleaded with me to use it carefully. Ridiculous!
The whole process of trying to get this information – and so much else about Mbeki’s and the ANC’s past – gave me valuable insight into how the past still lives in the present, and reinforced my belief that the search for information is often more revealing than finding it.
Tell us about the worst interview you have had to date.
I don’t mean to sound smug, but there is no such thing as a bad interview. Even the very worst ones tell you something about your subject. But the ones I really hate are the ones where you actually feel the subject lowering a screen between you, and you know they are on autopilot, giving you cant or PR bumf instead of substance. I’ve had enough of those, interviewing South African politicians!
- This Q&A first appeared in The Media magazine (August 2008).