Reporters are day-to-day historians who document events, places and people other than themselves which is why Mark Verbaan’s latest book, ‘Incognito – The Memoirs of Ben Trovato’ is difficult to categorise.
The only contemporary analogy that I can think of is Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox by English tabloid reporter, Susie Boniface, who, like Verbaan, kept her identity secret for a long time.
But while Boniface’s book is an intensely personal 365-day diary of the painful aftermath of a failed marriage melded with her day-to-day experiences as a reporter in the frenetically competitive world of British tabloid journalism, Verbaan’s book marries his experiences in the media world with a lifetime of wine (plus a fair bit of beer, hardtack and high altitude broccoli), women (lots of them and all beautiful) and song (he was a drummer in a punk band). (Boniface, like Verbaan, added to her intrigue by remaining anonymous for a time).
It is a fascinating roller coaster ride with more hair raising moments and highs and lows than a sub-seven minute lap of the Nurburgring and I read it from cover to cover without taking a break.
If ‘The Memoirs of Ben Trovato’ is difficult to categorise it is because he is difficult to categorise in a local media context. I cannot think of any of his contemporaries who has provided a more esoteric product and yet attracted a more devoted following.
Lest I be accused, though, of placing too much emphasis on pulchritude and prurience I must stress that, like Chris Steyn-Barlow’s book, ‘Publish and be Damned’ (Galago, 1999) it also gives a personal perspective of important historical events in a context which provides a valuable reference for media scholars.
What is disturbing from a media practitioner’s point of view is that, despite the fact that he is a creative and multi-faceted media talent – reporter (print and TV), writer, documentary producer and news editor – he spends a lot of his life unemployed and it was on one such occasion that, with some reticence, he accepted a reporting post with the South West African Broadcasting Corporation. It was a decision that was to have a huge impact on his life.
He finds the atmosphere at the SWABC, still mired in the apartheid ethos, stultifying but then meets and marries the gutsy Gwen Lister, owner and editor of the Namibian newspaper. This was the Vlakplaas era and the newspaper’s offices are firebombed twice. Swapo lawyer and family friend, Anton Lubowski, is assassinated. The hit man is believed to be Irishman Donald Acheson and Lister, too, is targeted.
“It emerged at the (Lubowski) inquest that Acheson had initially been hired to kill Gwen. He admitted to having been inside our house on a number of occasions. The instruction was to poison either the toothpaste or her tampons. Charming. I usually brushed my teeth before Gwen. It would have been me writhing on the bathroom floor, clutching my throat and bleeding from the eyeballs. Apparently someone had disturbed him and he slipped out of the house.”
On 21 March 1990 Namibia becomes independent, Sam Nujoma is sworn in as the country’s President and Verbaan returns to what is now the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, believing, as we did in South Africa, that a new era of media freedom had dawned. Disillusionment mirrored what we experienced here.
He reads the news, produces a talk show and starts an investigative programme Public Eye which he models on Carte Blanche.
It was when I reached this part of the book that I experienced a jolt of recognition because what he experienced was precisely what we experienced in South Africa – a brief Prague Spring then increasing and increasingly successful attempts by the governing party to turn what should be a public broadcaster into a party political mouthpiece.
The idea that the national broadcaster, while having to meet its obligations to inform, educate and entertain, was at last free of political interference was beyond question in my mind. Less so in the minds of those serving in the Swapo government
One of our first inserts focused on Swapo cabinet ministers, recently returned from exile, who were buying themselves lavish homes in the predominantly white suburbs. It wasn’t well received in the corridors of power. But this was an independent Namibia and we were free to criticise, name and shame whoever we liked. Or so we thought.
As news editor I received dozens of calls a day from a plethora of ministers and departments all ‘requesting’ coverage for their respective events. Most of the conversations went something like this. ‘The Minister of Sport is speaking at a handover of cricket bats in half an hour. Send a camera immediately.’
‘Er, I’m afraid that won’t be possible. All our news crews are out covering news stories. We won’t be able to make it.’
‘Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said the Minister of Sport is going to be there.’
‘Yes, I heard you. And I said our crews are out covering news stories. We won’t be able to make it.’
‘The Minister won’t be happy with this. He will be speaking to your boss.’
Later, Verbaan realises that Swapo has infiltrated cadres into the staff at all levels. He then discovers that they are removing from the archive tapes which contain visuals or audio which incriminate or embarrass the party’s politicians.
The comparisons with the SABC after its Madiba era are obvious. One thinks of deployed cadre Snuki Zikalala hurriedly acquiescing to the demand by Manto Tshabalala-Misimang that the SABC cover her speech at a leprosy conference and the disappearance from the archive of tapes relating to her liver transplant.
And who can forget the testimony of Jacques Pauw before the Sisulu/Marcus Commission of Inquiry that Zikalala had brought agents of the state into the Auckland Park studios to preview one of his programmes before it was broadcast.
Humankind’s enduring search for happiness through love is the glue that pulls together the chronological patchwork of events in a remarkable media life which, at the end of the book, leaves you thinking that you could not make this stuff up.
Jeremy Gordin, in his Politicsweb columns, used to describe Steven Friedman as the ‘Babe Magnet’ but when you read this book and look at the photographs of the author, particularly in his younger days, you realise that Verbaan rocks – as the many beautiful women in his life testify. Life’s vicissitudes sometimes make one wonder whether the ancient verity – it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all – is not a devious canard but I hope they still talk to him after this kiss and tell exposé
Take the beautiful Jaxin (all the women who drift or rampage through Verbaan’s life are beautiful), working as a waitress in a Durban restaurant who elicits no more than an appreciative glance and some banter – but she sinuously inserts herself into his life by tracking him down through the name on his credit card slip and she intermittently forms part of the ebb and flow of his life for the next 20 years.
Another example: He produces a documentary on the annual Namibian seal cull and submits it to CNN World Report. It wins the prize for best environmental documentary and he flies to Atlanta for the glittering prize giving. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda are in the front row when he makes his acceptance speech and he seems to remember Bill Clinton being there as well. After the speech he is approached by a senior vice president of Turner Broadcasting who is clearly smitten. She invites him to join her in the Turner box at the next day’s baseball game featuring the Atlanta Braves – which Turner owns.
Of course Linda was friends with Ted and Jane. ‘We’ll go round for dinner’, she suggested. She also made a point of introducing me to Eason Jordan, head of CNN international, who asked me to call him in the morning and set up a meeting with a view to working for them.
Linda was leaving for Miami on business for a few days and wanted me to come with her.
‘I’d love to’, I said. ‘I really would. But I, er, have a job back home.’ Bozo. You’re turning down a job at CNN because you work for the government’s electronic mouthpiece in Namibia? Well, not quite. I was turning it down because I had a family back home.
Hindsight, as they say, always provides the clarity off 50/50 vision and a marriage between a creative, head-in-the-clouds romantic who dreams of living near golden sands and the perfect wave and a control freak resolutely wedded to running her own newspaper in the aridity and heat of Windhoek was always going to be fraught.
Eight years after the birth of their daughter, Liberty, Lister decided that Verbaan had, as the author puts it, “outlived my usefulness”.
He facilitates the separation with grace and empathy, filing for divorce himself so that his wife is spared the publicity of appearing in court and selling her the house which he owned for a fraction of its value so that she and their daughter would not have to find new accommodation.
Lister, a steely pragmatist, stared down the worst that Vlakplaas had to offer. She recently stepped down as editor after more than 25 years at the helm and is busy writing her own memoirs – in which she will doubtlessly respond to Verbaan’s version of events.
After the divorce he moved to Cape Town, played a major role in getting e.tv news off the ground and created the Ben Trovato character.
Kind and gentle metrosexual nerds the world over wistfully wonder why so many desirable, intelligent women are attracted to bad boys and dark horses.
The image that the Ben Trovato column creates brings further conquests, some tender and poignant, others the stuff of nightmares.
One such liaison results in a second marriage and, like his first, it also founders, but not before his avatar is enhanced, first by his now estranged wife’s photography and then by her Photoshop skills.
That led me to ponder on the images one links with the names of our most famous – and some infamous – newspaper reporters, editors and columnists.
Helen Zille’s name brings to mind Steve Biko, manacled, naked and drifting in and out of consciousness as he is driven through the night in the back of a police van from the Eastern Cape to his eventual death in the Transvaal.
Jani Allen brings to mind blue blow torch eyes and green ventilated underpants perved through a keyhole.
David Bullard – pomaded hair, Buddy Holly spectacles and a fine Cuban cigar … and so one can continue.
But who would have thought of a black fedora, black trench coat, eyes hooded by black-as-night sunglasses and a bullwhip?
The fact remains however that promotional expertise cannot substitute for excellence and Verbaan’s eloquence and vivid imagination ingeniously coupled with currently topical issues have earned him a host of devoted fans. It is encouraging to note that his column is still being carried.
Other reviewers have described the wrenching sadness with which he writes about the final days and hours of his mother’s slow death from cancer but, for me, there is a moment of equal poignancy – the eventual acknowledgement that a decade-old relationship had come to an end.
I didn’t want to get divorced. I didn’t even understand why we were getting divorced. The idea of not being around to watch my child grow up filled me with dread. But there was no alternative. Gwen was adamant that we had come to the end and I never pushed her for reasons. I suppose I didn’t want to hear the words, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’
We have all been there.
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