News break: The last reading with Riaan
Monday night was expected to be like the previous 8 000-odd news bulletins.
Riaan Cruywagen arrives at 5pm in the usual dark suit — this time a double-breasted one with subtle light-blue pinstripes — with a blue shirt slightly paler than his azure eyes, a red and white striped tie and a matching red pocket square.
Not even a distress call 10 minutes later from the gatvol (fed up) Mail & Guardian team stuck at SABC security fazes him. He quickly disarms the particularly officious bureaucrat with gentlemanly charm and we are finally let in for Riaan’s last bulletin at 7pm, exactly 37 years to the day when he read his first bulletin on the Afrikaans news broadcast on November 26 1975.
Riaan is already made up and with not even a single hair is out of place (yes I know!).
“I thought I should have called in sick today,” he says and chuckles heartily as we go up in the lift to the newsroom.
The jokes about his immortality seem true when you look at Riaan closely. Under the make-up that has to deal with those relentless studio lights, his only wrinkles are a few lines under his eyes. He has a dry wit and laughs often. Even his hands, a dead giveaway of a person’s age, easily look 30 years younger than 67.
Like any good newsreader he edits and subs his own copy so that it is in his own style and readable. “I’m checking ‘protector’,” he tells the bulletin editor. “Now I’m checking ‘tolls’ ...”
“Oh, Annatjie called again to wish you luck with your last bulletin,” one of the producers calls across to Riaan. “And no, I have no clue who she is.”
Other SABC news staff keep interrupting Riaan for snaps with him as he hits the “magic hour” before the bulletin, when it seems all clocks start going at triple speed and the tension peaks. He generously obliges every time with a wide smile.
The executive producer sends us distracting media types to the “green room”, TV parlance for the bland waiting area. Fortunately, at 20 minutes before the bulletin we’re joined by Riaan’s wife, Riana, their only daughter, Anita, her husband and their five-year-old twins.
“What I look forward to the most is that he will be at home on weekends,” says Riana, his wife of 41 years. “We’re planning a big holiday to go and visit friends in Australia next year.”
Riaan owns more than 300 ties, which, Riana says, they hope to auction for charity.
“He even has some crocheted ones,” laughs Anita, who has her dad’s sense of humour. “My mom has one cupboard and he has three for all his suits and ties!”
Growing up it was tough having such a well-known dad. “But when I grew older it was amazing because my dad is such an amazing guy. I do wish, though, that people could know him for who he really is, not just that perfect image on television, because he is so much fun.”
What is she expecting tonight? “He is either going to be cool as he normally is, or he will be very stressed. He says he doesn’t understand the fuss ...”
But the one word for him is unflappable. One of Riaan’s favourite stories illustrates that.
“Once the autocue, the teleprompter, stopped in mid-sentence and I had to quickly refer and find my place in the printed script in front of me, which I fortunately did without interruption,” he tells me. “And when the insert came I had wake up the autocue operator because she had fallen asleep [laughs]. The poor thing must have been exhausted but I very kindly and very politely reminded her that we were on air and we carried on.”
But tonight there will be another kind of immense pressure on Mr Composed. In addition to the technical director, bulletin editor, studio manager, vision mixer and graphics co-ordinator, the control room is packed — with his family, a bunch of journalists and SABC staffers who all can taste the sense of history being made, not to mention the millions of viewers coming to say good night in front of their television sets.
Will all this emotion make him buckle? Television is, after all, the most intimate medium. No frown, smile or tear goes unseen when the camera is close up on your face.
Top of the hour. The familiar theme tune. The even more familiar well-modulated voice — not macho but kind, suggesting that despite all the horrors, disasters and crises, everything will be okay. It reminds you a bit of the old-school doctor who tells you on a house call to take one before you go to sleep and it will be all right in the morning.
His Afrikaans is correct but easy to follow, not pompous or from the height of a pulpit or a political platform.
In Monday’s bulletin there’s the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, the South African National Roads Agency Limited, Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale and, later, cricket hero Faf du Plessis, before the hero of the moment has to say his final goodbyes.
“My taak is afgehandel [my task has been completed],” he says.
I see his daughter and wife wiping the tears from their eyes.
“To you the TV viewers, thank you very much for allowing me into your homes for so many years. For me it was an exceptional privilege. When I look back over the years it is nothing but grace.
“For the last time, goodbye, and have a good day.” He waves.
He did it again — like the almost 8 000 before this one – smoothly, seamlessly and utterly professionally.
But then comes a final six-minute curve ball, a beautiful tribute compiled by one of his colleagues on the Afrikaans desk. Even though Riaan is off air, we can still see him on the monitor in the control room as he intently watches this touching celebration of his career on the studio monitor.
For the last minute of the insert Anita is on screen, looking directly into the camera. It is just a daughter addressing her dear dad. The millions watching are totally forgotten: “Pappa, ek het ’n wens wat ek vanaand by Pappa wil opdra: gaan en geniet die aftrede, gaan sit en doen niks (Daddy, I have a wish for you: go and enjoy your retirement, sit and do nothing).
“Wees rustig. Ek weet Pappa sukkel met dit (chill, I know you struggle to do that). Ek weet Pappa kan nie sit en niksdoen nie, maar oefen, doen dit en kry dit reg (I know you can’t sit and do nothing, but practise and get it right).”
The packed control room is silent except for the odd sniff. On the studio monitors, the man who never showed emotion tries to bite his bottom lip, but then gives in and the tears start welling in his eyes. Tonight is not a night for professional distance. Riaan is allowed to cry. Allowed by himself.
But the humour returns soon. As someone said on Twitter: “When Riaan Cruywagen said goeie naand [good night] for the last time, Chuck Norris said yes sir and went to bed.”
For Riaan it wasn’t to bed yet. A small function in the newsroom with more fond goodbyes, some snacks and champagne.
“You are trending on Twitter,” one of the younger staffers tells him.
“What’s Twitter?” he asks with a twinkle in his eyes and laughs heartily.
A young Sesotho newsreader apologises profusely to me about jumping the queue of the media interviews. “Naand Oom Riaan (Evening Uncle Riaan),” he says to Riaan. “Can I please take a photograph with you? You are my role model.”
Ever felt depressed after a particularly relentless bulletin, I ask him when we finally sit down. “I managed to distance myself from emotion in the news, with the result that I never really became depressed although I realised that I often had to present depressing news. Whenever there was something really depressing I tried not to show emotion but empathy.
“I never allowed such a bulletin to influence my mood, because I am by nature a positive person. To me the glass is always half full.”
Make no mistake, Riaan had to announce and present some ghastly news in his day. His first bulletin announced how Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach was sentenced to seven years in prison for “terrorism”.
As a fairly “interactive” news watcher and person of the left, I remember the announcement of the state of emergency in 1985 – cursing PW Botha, but not Riaan. Strangely enough I never shouted at Riaan. For me he was like a medium, never the evil spirit himself, unlike some of his more enthusiastic colleagues.
For me, rightly or wrongly, people like Freek Robinson and, of course, Cliff Saunders became little PWs, little Pik Bothas in the way the eyes were rolled, the voices inflected, the bodies were speaking. They were like particularly strict and committed prefects doing the bidding of and enforcing for the sly old apartheid schoolmaster.
Riaan always did his job in the way British civil servants do theirs, irrespective of who was in charge.
“I always remained a career broadcaster no matter who was in charge in government or the SABC. I remained true to my profession and nothing else. I never became involved in politics, neither external nor internal, and I made it my duty to focus on presenting the news in an unbiased, non-partisan, objective, credible and authoritative way.
“If ever I was used it was in my capacity as the presenter of the news, but please keep in mind that I am a career broadcaster. I had a job to serve the public by presenting the news. It was more or less like the work of a career diplomat — he will represent his country abroad irrespective of who is in power.
“I never allowed politics to influence me. I just had to concentrate and focus on presenting the news, whatever the contents were, professionally, to the best of my ability.”
Despite my hatred for how the SABC was His Master’s Voice especially under PW, I somehow buy this. Must be a combination of the argument and Riaan’s personality. I worked alongside him in the early 2000s and always saw what a great colleague and mentor he was for everyone at the SABC.
And the apparent eternal youthfulness? “I do get colds, and I have often through the past almost four decades called in sick because I lost my voice owing to laryngitis or pharyngitis or a very bad cold. It happens to me too ...” So you’re human, I interject, and he laughs. “I’m not completely immune.
“I try to lead a healthy lifestyle. I don’t smoke, I drink moderately. When I do drink I prefer champagne, but in moderation, once again. I also love red and white wine. I try and eat healthy food. I don’t eat junk food. I do regular exercise by jogging on my treadmill. I can’t go to a gym as you can imagine — people always want to take pictures or start up a conversation.
“I never eat before I go on air I don’t want to sit in front of a camera with a full stomach. I feel it is not good for my concentration.”
As his daughter said earlier about his fame: “It is never a case of him going quickly to Cresta [a shopping mall near his house in Randburg]”.
“I think I deal with it very well because I will never ever give a member of the public the cold shoulder because it is thanks to the public that I am where I am. Fame hasn’t gone to my head. I will always remain the same old Riaan who started broadcasting in 1965. I have no delusions of grandeur.”
You never fluff; how do you do it?
“Perhaps I was born with the ability to read fluently. Perhaps I was born with the ability to concentrate so that I don’t fluff easily. But don’t make a mistake. I also have the odd fluff now and then.”
Riaan has always maintained that balance between being serious and not taking himself too seriously.
“I think news anchors tend to take themselves too seriously very easily and I made a definite decision not to take myself too seriously. I think you might have where I mime Jan Blohm [Riaan pretended to be Blohm in the bad boy blues rocker’s video Anna, even feigning that typical guitar solo ecstasy] and sit in a jacuzzi in a suit, surrounded by bikini girls, just to show people I am not a mechanical reading machine, that I’m not just a one-track-minded serious newsperson, but that I also have a light and humorous side to me.
“Ever since that Jan Blohm music video young people became aware of me and started contacting me, saying they’ve also started watching the news because if a cool guy like me can read the news they ought to watch the news. So if that helped young people watch the news, then I think I’ve achieved something.”
So he is a cult figure?
“Apparently there is a bar in Bloemfontein with a huge picture of a TV with my face in it. There’s a piece of graffiti on a wall in Kayamandi [outside Stellenbosch] and the pop group Zinkplaat wrote a special song for me when there were rumours that I would leave the SABC (Waar’s Riaan? — Where’s Riaan?). This indicates to me that, yes, there could be some signs of a cult figure, although I never aspire to become that. I was just myself doing my work,” he says, feigning a slighted voice, before bursting into his hearty laughter, “... and having some fun in between!”
So on the final night you finally show some emotion during that tribute piece when your daughter was speaking to you?
“Yes, that brought tears to my eyes because there is a very tight bond between me and my daughter. She’s my only child. When she looked into the camera and addressed me and said Pappa dis tyd dat jy nou begin chill, that brought a lump to my throat, because I knew that she was so sincere and she meant it because she is concerned about me.”
I saw on the control room monitor how you bit your bottom lip, but it didn’t stop the tears? “I’m so glad I wasn’t on air,” he says and laughs.
We look at each other for a few seconds and blink. We both have a cloud of mist over our eyes.
Goeie nag Riaan.