It took 10 years to land an interview with Malema … but it was worth the wait

Monday.

It’s just before midday.

We’re sitting in the corner office on the fifth floor of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela House, waiting for its owner, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) president Julius Malema, to arrive.

Several weeks of intense begging, hustling and general moving-of-mountains by colleague Lizeka Tandwa has managed to land us an interview with Malema to mark the 10 years since he was expelled from the ANC by the governing party.

I’m stoked.

This time a decade ago I was called to King’s House in Durban by the then ANC president, Jacob Zuma, for an interview in which he broke the news of Malema’s five-year suspension from the ANC  being turned into an expulsion, so getting to talk to Malema about that — and the 10 years since — is a beautiful thing.

I’ve also never interviewed Malema.

There’ve been questions at press conferences and in a couple of doorstepped ANC rally briefings back in his ANC Youth League days, so this is a first for me.

I was there when Malema arrived to officially hand over the house the EFF had built for Sithandiwe Hlongwane next to Zuma’s home at Nkandla in 2016, but there wasn’t much chance to talk that day.

AmaBerete had to get out the stun grenades and form a flying V of muscle, boots and steel around Malema to get him through the crowd of his former comrades and locals who had gathered to stop him from handing over the house.

We could hardly hear Malema’s handover comments because of the flashbangs going off in the background and the insults being hurled by the crew of young women in ANC T-shirts who were heckling him from the road above.

Malema left straight afterwards, a wise move given that nobody had been badly hurt or killed, yet, so there was no chance to talk to the man.

I have more reasons to be stoked.

I can’t remember the last time I read an  interview with Malema — his media interactions are generally limited to mass press conferences, which are pretty tightly controlled by the EFF media team — so Lizeka has pulled off something of a coup in getting us here.

At one point I’d given up, resigned myself to emailed questions and had started a 10-year cull of Malema’s speeches, press briefings and party documents as a not particularly satisfying plan B.

I haven’t been able to sleep properly since we got word on Saturday — unconfirmed — that we were in the game and on for noon on Monday.  

Too many dreams about missing planes; about getting lost on the way to Gandhi Square, about tanking the job.

I’ve been like that before big jobs since I started doing this in 1984; nerves right up until the gig starts, when all that disappears and it’s time to do what you came to do.

I thought in the beginning that it was a rookie thing, a mix of anxiety and excitement and naivete, that would be blunted, that would ease, or pass, with time on the job.

I was wrong.

Nearly 40 years later, it’s still the same.

Thankfully.

The first proper story I went on was with Fawzia Moodley, who, along with Cheryl Roberts, was mentoring me at The Leader newspaper, where I had landed, fresh from technikon.

The first week was spent typing up notices for devotional events; notices about bhajans and kirtans, and stuff about sari queen contests, so when Fawzia offered to take me with her to Bhambayi at Inanda, where people were being evicted by Indian landowners, I was more than keen.

I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was so keyed up about the job, so I fell asleep in the office station wagon on the way.

When I woke up the road had run out and it was time to walk.

The car had overheated, so the driver, Uncle Stephen, opened the radiator to add turmeric once it cooled down a bit so we could make it back to Queen Street. 

Uncle Stephen kept an ice cream container of turmeric under his seat.

Fawzia — who was heavily pregnant —  headed off to some houses about 500m up the hill  — they were among those under threat —  with me in tow.

The next thing, it’s raining bricks; there’s an angry crowd charging down the hill towards us, all knobkerries and calembas, thinking we’ve come with another eviction notice.

In seconds, Fawzia’s dumped her heels and she and I are burning it back towards the car, where Uncle Stephen — the turmeric having done its job — is gunning the engine and screaming at us to get in.

Not quite the journalistic debut I’d anticipated, but one takes what one gets.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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