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Behind the scenes: Reporting on an election

At some point in the very early hours of Friday morning, the coffee at the results centre in Tshwane ran out.

It was the worst possible timing: the cameramen, surviving on three hours of sleep a day, could barely keep their eyes open; exhausted TV producers, deprived of caffeine, fell into a fug, barely able to summon the energy to corral the next guest into the studio.

The guests themselves — the few talking heads that were not at home in bed — were listless and bored, safe in the knowledge that no one who mattered would be listening at this ungodly hour.

But the cameras didn’t care. They kept rolling: the 24-hour news cycle is an insatiable beast that, even in the best of times, cares little for the journalists responsible for feeding it. Never is this more true than in election season, when news organisations are expected to deliver rolling, live coverage of the story that, one way or the other, will define this democracy for the next five years.

“To be honest it’s been really challenging,” said Sarah Evans, a News24 journalist who has spent three solid days at the results centre. “In the social media age you have to be really quick, really on it with the numbers, and be feeding new information into your feeds all the time.”

Elections present journalists with a unique challenge. As one correspondent for an American newspaper put it: “You have to cover elections. But it’s hard to make your coverage stand out, because everyone is doing the same story.”

And the story is not always especially exciting. There are only so many ways to do a vox pop of a voter in a queue; the politicians themselves speak from carefully-prepared scripts; and, after a while, all the analysts begin to sound the same.

“It’s long stretches of boredom punctuated by sudden flurries of intense activity,” said one eNCA producer, slumped next to a tripod.

In Tshwane’s Events Centre, the temporary headquarters of the IEC, those flurries coincide with the arrival on the vast results centre floor of top-ranking politicians; or when the electoral observers deliver their verdict, prompting a scrum of microphones and cameras, with reporters jostling for strategic positions so they can be the first to ask a question.

Almost all media outlets in the country are represented here, everything from the public broadcaster to tiny community radio stations that few other journalists have even heard of; along with a healthy cross-section of international outlets such as Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Reuters.

The foreign correspondents face their own challenges: the vote in South Africa keeps getting bumped off the international news agenda, first by the birth of the royal baby, and then by the escalating trade war between China and the US.

By Friday morning, when the final results start taking shape, the mood amongst the media contingent lifts. It helps that fresh coffee has arrived, and breakfast too — the quality of the catering is first class. For most reporters, the end of the marathon is in sight, and this is where it starts to get really interesting.

Usually, access to politicians is carefully controlled by their handlers, but at the results centre the normal rules don’t apply. Journalists mix freely with party officials under the shadow of the giant results screen, providing an unprecedented opportunity to watch their reactions as the screen ticks over, delivering vindication for some and bitter rejection for others. It is a chance for one-on-one interviews and, for photographers, to build up an image bank of the people they know they will be reporting on for the foreseeable future.

Oupa Nkosi, the Mail & Guardian’s deputy photo editor, has a strategy: he stands with his back to the harsh overhead lights, and simply waits for VIPs to come into view. Light here is a real problem for photographers: “If I take the photos from any other direction, the people will come out as silhouettes,” he says.

The relatively intimate access can be a double-edged sword, giving politicians a chance to vent their own frustrations about the media coverage they have received. “I think like all industries the media is facing a resource challenge, and you can sense that in terms of the deployment of media to events and so on,” said Mabine Seabe, spokesperson for Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane.

Seabe is the veteran of several campaigns now, and says he has noticed that the number of journalists is steadily decreasing — a reflection of the declining numbers of South Africa journalists in general (public service announcement: if you want this to change, buy newspapers).

One major positive has come out of this campaign, however: “Overall there’s been a fairness of coverage and I must speak especially about the public broadcaster in this regard,” says Seabe.

Smaller parties are not so convinced that the coverage has been fair: more than one smaller party spokesperson could be found knocking on the doors of the temporary prefab offices where media outlets were housed, begging for an interview that was not always granted.

Despite the long stretches of boredom, the lack of sleep, and the occasional caffeine shortages, there’s nothing that beats the rush of bearing witness to South African democracy in action, says M&G editor Khadija Patel. “It’s so exciting coming back to this place. There’s a great energy, especially for political junkies. It oozes atmosphere, and drama, in the best way possible.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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