Media Opinion South Africa

A cautionary media tale

Here's a look at political philanderers past and present and the role that the media plays in exposing them.

I see that the helmeted one, French Prime Minister Francoise Hollande, is in the news after he allegedly "slipped his moorings" with the delectable French actress, Julie Gayet.

Looking at the middle-aged and portly Hollande and his pomaded hairdo, one struggles to see any resemblance to the typical Mills & Boon Lothario. It all goes to show that there must be some truth in the adage about political power being an aphrodisiac.

This reminded me of an intriguing tale I recently heard from a former parliamentary reporter who worked there in the late '60s.

It concerned Willy Maree, the National Party MP for Newcastle. The reporters for the English newspapers received a tip-off from the office of United Party leader, Sir De Villiers Graaff. The gist of the leak was that Maree had been caught "doing a Vavi" in his office.

As Tony Leon pointed out in a recent Business Day column, a different ethos prevailed then and the information received was that a deeply unimpressed National Party, concerned about the possible repercussions of the story, would pre-emptively announce, with laudatory regret, that Maree would be retiring from parliament and from politics for "health reasons."

Forewarned is forearmed and a group of reporters from "die donnerse Engelse pers" duly gathered the next morning outside Maree's office and enquired with felicitous concern about his "failing" health and his forthcoming departure from the portals of political power.

"What!" bellowed the alleged philanderer. "I have never been fitter in my life - I tore up the golf course yesterday!" before storming off in a rage.

The next day, the National Party announced, "with regret" that for "health reasons" its hugely respected MP for Newcastle would be retiring from politics after a stellar career in the service of volk en vaderland.

Details of Maree's "standing knee tremble" - for so it was rumoured at the time - were never reported on in that more decorous age and he quietly faded into political oblivion.

Not so our Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula.

When the story broke about him and the vivacious model and businesswoman Joyce Molamu and their "steamy sexual encounter" he initially and through his lawyer denied it. Then, when SMS correspondence between them became public, he tried the routine defence - it was all part of a dastardly and well-orchestrated "political smear campaign" involving, of course, those bloody "agents". He even went so far as going to court in a failed attempt to prevent publication of the story.

The site of many a public figure's undoing... The simple bed... and complicated problems. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The site of many a public figure's undoing... The simple bed... and complicated problems. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

And so Mbalula came up with a counter strategy which his spin doctors no doubt assured him would increase his esteem among our randy youth. An awed electorate was now informed, that the condom broke! What a player. Molamu was not impressed).

I was also not impressed (albeit it for different reasons I hasten to add) because I was peripherally involved as an SABC television news reporter with someone of infinitely greater panache in the swordsman stakes - the National Party MP and Minister of Sport, Piet Koornhof.

It was Rapport that broke the story in 1993 that he was involved in a liaison with Marcelle Adams, 44 years his junior, while still married to his wife, Lulu.

This was the closing era of the NP and reporters, particularly on the English newspapers, were not favourably inclined towards the party and its ministers.

So when the news was leaked that Koornhof and Marcelle were returning from an overseas holiday, it was a repeat of the Maree scenario. A somewhat vengeful press pack assembled in the international arrivals hall at the Cape Town airport.

At that time the exit door from customs T-junctioned with a wall which forced you to go left or right. The reporters and newspaper photographers stood on the left side of the wall. I was connected to my cameraman, Victor Njokwana, by a long microphone cable and, weighed down by a battery-powered portable light, I took up station on the opposite side of the wall.

I reasoned that Koornhof, would turn away from the flashguns and I might then be able to get a question in.

A startled Koornhof faced the first question - "Minister Koornhof, are you surprised that your wife is not here to meet you?" and he and Marcelle turned away from his hostile interrogators.


That's when things went somewhat awry. In the resulting melee, Marcelle, all décolletage and fetching in a bright red leather jacket, matching high-heeled boots and a barely-legal, skin-tight pelmet mini, ended up straddling my microphone cable.

Rather than bisecting the mini I dropped the mic. I then had to disconnect it from Victor's camera. He flipped the switch to activate the camera mic and set off in pursuit.

Piet's problem was that his car was garaged some distance from Domestic Arrivals. Surrounded by the jostling news hounds he and Marcelle set off on what must have seemed an interminable journey as he constantly muttered "Ek het niks om te sê! Ek het niks om te sê!"

Panting and cursing, with the Sungun battery bouncing uncomfortably on my hip, I caught up with the scurrying pair.

It was quiet now as the reporters, their work done, dropped back and left it to the photographers. All that could be heard was the resounding Tok! Tok! Tok! as her red stiletto heels hammered into the tar.

Victor is a big, strong guy who balances a video camera on his shoulder with the effortless ease of a drum majorette carrying a mace and he moved quickly, first getting footage as they came towards him and then shots from behind the couple.

"Victor, get the legs, get the legs!" I shouted and was instantly ashamed of myself and my lack of professionalism.

I doubt if he heard me - he was in that zone of ferocious mental concentration which such situations demand. Your world is small, your eyepiece not much bigger than a postage stamp. It's zoom, focus, compose, roll - close-shot, medium, wide, cutaway and repeat, weaving together the visual tapestry which will later be edited into a coherent flow of pictures and interwoven sound.

Later, as we trudged back in the heat towards the rest of our gear - tripod and lights - in the airport building, Piet's green Mercedes droned past. It was at least a decade old. It was, as Tony Leon remarked, a different era and a different ethos prevailed.

Adams later bewitched and married a German aerobatic pilot and millionaire businessman, Fritz Cherdron and now lives abroad, light years and a long way from her Long Street past.

Although Koornhof and Mbalula had the sports portfolio in common, there was a difference in how they reacted to the exposure of their infidelities. Piet never tried to mislead the public by denying his affair, and he acknowledged and publicly regretted the hurt it had caused while at the same time refusing to end his relationship with Adams because he loved her. Furthermore, as he wryly pointed out, his happy 12-year relationship with Marcelle, a Coloured woman, profoundly undermined the basic tenets of apartheid in general and the Immorality Act in particular.

In an age when every smartphone can produce magazine-quality photographs and broadcast-quality video clips and image-stabilised camera lenses can photograph from afar, politicians who dally deserve exposure.

Closer magazine staked out Hollande, and Capetonians experienced the same thing when the Daily Voice was started in 2005; the publication paid some attention to Mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo and her media adviser, the late Blackman Ngoro.

Earlier, on 6 July 1990, a tip-off resulted in Die Burger photographing the very Reverend Dr Alan Boesak trying to hide behind a pillar in the parking garage of a Sea Point hotel after he had spent the night with the woman he later married, Elna Fluxman. This led to them each divorcing their spouse.

While the French have traditionally adopted a laissez-faire attitude to the infidelities of politicians, that attitude is changing and this change can, in part, be attributed to growing public disgust about the behaviour of men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Silvio Berlusconi.

In South Africa, the standing of President Jacob Zuma has been diminished by his serial infidelities.

But, in the Piet Koornhof/Marcelle Adams affair there was a certain heart-warming nobility. Even after she had left Koornhof for another man Adams never ceased to express her appreciation of and respect for him and he for her. And, despite the immense hurt and the dreadful public humiliation of her husband's well-publicised, 12-year relationship with Marcelle, Lulu Koornhof never stopped loving him and did not divorce him. They were reconciled shortly before he died.

Lulu Koornhof truly embodied what is so eloquently captured in Max Ehrmann's justifiably lauded poem:

"Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass." ...
... a sentiment echoed in Corinthians 13:4-8

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

Like moths to a flame, women have always and will always be attracted to powerful politicians - and they to them. Even the mildest of politicians - and seemingly the most innocent - are not above adulterous dalliance which does not always remain discreet. Consider the case of British Prime Minister John Major and his parliamentary colleague Edwina Curry...

About Ed Herbst

Ed Herbst is an author and a prize-winning reporter. He worked for SABC television news for 28 years but left in 2005 without other employment in prospect because of the pervasive news and other corruption at all levels of the corporation. He is also a fly fishing enthusiast.

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