Tonight, Riaan Cruywagen will read the Afrikaans news on SABC2 for the very last time. This day, 37 years ago, the television news veteran started his long career at the SABC. Now, at 67, he’s hanging up his suit and tie, mike and make up, and retiring graciously. Editor of The Media, Peta Krost Maunder, interviewed him earlier this year for a cover story. Here, we honour the ‘national treasure’ on his last day of work.
When close on 60 000 people watched veteran SABC television news presenter Riaan Cruywagen on YouTube recently, they weren’t surprised to see him in a suit and a serious expression but they thought it pretty hilarious that he was submerged in a Jacuzzi and surrounded by a bevy of beautiful but scantily-clad women.
That is not the image people have of the longest standing television newsreader in South Africa. No one really expects him to have a sense of humour. He is the credible face of television news in South Africa. He has always been associated with SABC, despite the massive changes that have occurred since he started there 37 years ago at the beginning of television in the country.
“The real Riaan has a very good sense of humour, loves to laugh, enjoys life, is an eternal optimist, and delights in surprising people by occasionally doing the unexpected,” he says. “I really enjoy doing things like the Jacuzzi scene in the promo for the Loerie Awards, miming the singer Jan Blohm in a music video, or producing funny voices for children’s programmes like ‘Haas Daas’ in the 1970s.”
He admits, though, that in the Loeries’ Jacuzzi video, he had assumed the production team was going to superimpose his image into the scene.
“I thought the producer was crazy when he expected me to wear a suit in the water. The fun part was admiring the gorgeous babes in their bikinis around me; the bad part was spending four hours in the water. I was shrunk like a prune!”
Not what you expect from someone who many claim is a national treasure. Cruywagen has apparently been voted the second most credible South African after former president Nelson Mandela, according to numerous internet sites.
While it was accidental that Cruywagen landed up as a newsreader, going into broadcasting was not. “At age five, during the Korean War, I would hide behind my parents’ old radiogramme and announce: “This is the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Here is the news. Shots were fired by the Communists in Korea today…” Winning a SABC bursary to study languages at the University of Stellenbosch in 1965 with the intention of becoming a radio announcer was a dream come true for him.
Ten years later, during the television test transmission phase, he landed up reading the news when the scheduled Afrikaans presenter was “incapacitated at the last moment”.
Of that first moment in front of the camera, he says: “I had to get my butterflies to fly in formation and tackle the broadcaster head on.
The strong flow of adrenalin in my blood must have saved me because I concentrated like a pilot about to make an emergency landing. But afterwards I needed a double Scotch to calm my nerves.”
He clearly did okay because his name was immediately added to the list of regular presenters.
Since then he has seen SABC television through all its eras. “We started with 16mm film, old fashioned manual typewriters, telex machines, and only landline telephones. No teleprompters, video cassettes, satellite communication, cellphones, fax machines, computers or digital equipment,” he recalls. “I still miss the clattering of typewriters and telex machines, though, when I walk into the newsroom.
“I have seen controlling officers at the SABC come and go as governments came and went.” But he compares himself to a career diplomat, saying he just carries on his duties unabated, regardless of who is in power.
Still fresh in his memory is the launch of television in the country. He was a part of the team that devised its news service. In May 1975, SABC sent him overseas for two months to study studio production. “We wanted to be the best and we were prepared to learn – not only from overseas trainers but also from our mistakes. There was an indescribable esprit de corps that made it a pure joy to work very long and irregular hours.”
He will not be drawn to discuss SABC’s widely publicised troubles but says he is confident that “with courageous leadership, the SABC can really become the national broadcaster of which every South African can truly be proud”.
He remains loyal to the SABC. “Through the years, they invested much in me in the form of training and public exposure. In a sense, I feel I owe them something in return and I reciprocate with my loyalty,” he said. “I am a career broadcaster who doesn’t get involved in politics. I thoroughly enjoy my work…I certainly haven’t stuck with the SABC for the money!”
Being a public figure “obviously cost me my privacy”, he says. “I cannot visit crowded places when on holiday without raising attention and have to select quiet secluded destinations.
“I have to take care to act and behave properly in public (not that I don’t do so at home). It took me almost 47 years to build a respectable public image and I don’t want to destroy it in a few seconds by any ill-judged or thoughtless action in public.”
So, you can count on Cruywagen to be polite to people who interrupt his restaurant meals or his shopping experiences. “I am not superior to any other human being so there is absolutely no reason to be impatient or rude to others who approach me with good intentions such as an autograph or posing for a quick pic.”
But not everyone has been as polite to him. Jokes abound at his expense, mostly about his supposed ability to keep looking young. “I don’t care about that. I am too busy to pay any attention to trivial matters such as heckling.”
While some may laugh, the massive support he got when SABC decided in 2003 not to renew his contract was astounding. “I was absolutely overwhelmed and humbled by the public support from (the entire) colour and political spectrum,” he said. “People from all walks of life demonstrated their support in phone calls, letters, emails, SMSes – you name it.”
His union dealt with the negotiations with SABC management and they reached “an amicable settlement” and he continued with his work at the SABC.
Although he is a broadcasting man, he consumes all media with a vengeance. “In my humble opinion many of the traditional Afrikaans media tend to rely too heavily on sensation in their quest for increased circulation,” he says. “I guess I’m still from the old school who prefer to be informed by the news media rather than to be entertained by them.”
He also believes the broadcast and print media should co-operate more to develop a “symbiotic relationship”. He says that there is only enough time in any television news broadcast to “whet the appetite of viewers” who could get the rest of their information in detail from newspapers. “The two media should supplement each other rather than competing,” he says. And while he does utilise online media, he cherishes newspapers and hopes they are never replaced.
And there are many who hope the 66-year-old Cruywagen is never replaced on the box either. That is, if they accept that he is actually ageing – the subject of so much debate and humour. He attributes people’s perception of his agelessness to just how regularly they see him. “It’s like seeing your own face in the mirror every morning – you don’t notice you’re actually ageing.” For the rest, it is “good genes and a healthy lifestyle”, he says.
“I don’t smoke, I use alcohol in moderation only, I don’t eat junk food but prefer fresh produce, I drink lots of water, I walk at a brisk pace, and I take the stairs instead of the lift. Hence I keep my 1,8m frame at a steady weight of 70kg.”
His family has had to accept that he is “public property” because of his work. “My wife and daughter have spent thousands of evenings alone at home,” he says. “They sacrificed a lot by sharing me with the public, and I have endless appreciation for that.”
His contract with SABC has just been renewed for another year and, he says, he has to start “thinking about Alfred Lord Tennyson’s axiom: ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new’.
“Sooner or later I, too, will retire. I just don’t know when,” he says. Cruywagen recently told a fellow journalist: “I’ve been practicing to read the television news now for 37 years; the day I get it right, I will retire!”
This story was first published in the June 2012 issue of The Media magazine.