Pippa Green: Matthew and Madiba

This is a chapter from Katy Katopodis's book 'I'm Missing News: When Hard News and Parenting Collide'.

My son is a few years older than the democratic South Africa. He grew up with it, which meant that I, as a parent and journalist, had to work out a way to cover one of the best stories of the late 20th century and to raise a child.

Actually, I had no idea how to do either. I didn't realise quite how hard both tasks would be or, in retrospect, how fulfilling.

In 1989, I had returned from a few years in New York, equipped with a fancy degree from Columbia, a little more journalism experience than when I had left the country, and a four-month-old baby, Matthew. No problem, I thought, I would freelance, cover the unfolding story of the revolution that was then happening daily on our streets, and bond with my child along the way.

But no experience, and certainly no degree, equipped me with the knowledge of how to be both a working journalist and the mother of an infant, and nothing in the world prepares one for the work that is required in the latter role.|

On our first day back in Cape Town, my husband kissed me goodbye and went off to his office, leaving me with the baby. It was a somewhat astounding feeling because I realised that the kind of journalism I had done in my pre-New York days - rushing off to the first sign of trouble in the townships to report on it for my newspaper - was no longer within the parameters of possibility.

It took a while for that reality to set in and when it did, I found a place for my son in a family-friendly daycare that took only three babies in the home of a doctor across town. The atmosphere was perfect, I thought - no large anonymous crèche, no institution-like rooms. Just a home and friends for my child to play with.

Problem was, it was mornings only. This was fine on many days, but if a story broke, what to do?

I quickly discovered the order of priorities. Rushing for that 1.00 p.m. cut-off hour of the daycare was a deadline that trumped all others.

In early 1990, in the days before Mandela was released, I was employed as a fixer/producer for a large American television network. It paid well but it could stretch to all hours. I recall once galloping after a cameraman through a large, protesting crowd on the Grand Parade in Cape Town carrying a small stepladder for him. I did not worry, particularly, about whether or not carting around equipment through a crowded street would enhance my career. My only prayer was that if the restive protest became a riot, it would finish by 1.00 p.m. so I would make the daycare in time.

Matthew was 18 months old when Mandela was released.

Thankfully it was a Sunday, and we then lived in a town with three willing and available grandparents.

We spent hours on the Parade that day - my husband in a different capacity from me - until the summer skies had long darkened. It should have been a golden day, but it nearly turned ugly.

Mandela was four hours late for his assignation with freedom, and the crowds turned angry and suspicious. Gangsters looted nearby stores and, from where I was standing, I heard gunshots. But, being a Sunday, I was freed of the tyranny of the 1.00 p.m. deadline, so felt oddly relaxed even when history may have turned against us.

Matthew was five when the first elections happened. By that time I had gone into magazines. It would be easier, I thought; no daily deadlines, more flexibility. And Matthew was in full-time care then: a nursery school in the morning and daycare in the afternoon.

The work was of a different texture, but almost as tough.

Being on a monthly news magazine means you have to find newsworthy angles that last. This was a period in South Africa when there was a news glut, and every top-notch journalist in the world was here to cover it.

In the hope of finding a slightly different angle on the elections, the photographer David Goldblatt and I travelled to a small village in a remote north-eastern corner of KwaZulu (as it was then called). We holed up with an odd assortment of community workers, ex-MK soldiers, and even a water affairs official, all of whom had volunteered to work for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

But again, history threatened to veer from the script. Inkatha, which commanded the loyalty of many rural chiefs in those days, was disaffected and angry. The party came into the electoral process at the last second. During the election campaign, it was profoundly hostile, a hostility that was visited, not so much on the ANC, its opponents, but on the machinery of the election itself.

Three nights before the election, an angry group of armed Inkatha supporters barricaded IEC of!cials into the local IEC centre at Jozini. The volunteers in our village drove over the gravel roads in the dead of night, a pile of guns under a blanket at the back of their bakkie, to rescue the hostages, with Goldblatt and me in tow.

I was so caught up in the story, I did not even consider what might have happened to my son had anything untoward happened to our rather raggedy little party riding to the rescue. Perhaps nothing. When I told my mother about our trip afterwards, she was far more alarmed that I had bathed one morning - in the absence of running water - in the Pongola River, which, if not crocodile and hippo infested, is certainly the site of frequent visitations of these creatures. The IEC comrades had taken turns to stand on the banks to look for the telltale whirlpools that crocs make as they glide towards their prey.

The election itself, the seeming magic of its success, dwarfed the anxieties that had been so manifest in the preceding days.

And it was an anxious time. One reporter, Sahm Venter, wore a T-shirt through the campaign with a line from the David Bowie song: 'Take your protein pill and put your helmet on … South Africa. Elections 94.' An adviser to then President F.W. de Klerk complained about the lack of humour in the campaign, saying in a decided understatement: 'The violence has made it a bit deadly.'

I recorded these incidents in a piece I wrote for Leadership magazine, which accompanied a photo essay, called 'Who Would Have Dreamed?' In it, I allowed myself a moment of personal reflection when I reported what it had meant to my son. While watching 'Mr Mandela's party' on television, I wrote, '[he] asked for a new South African flag, and learnt to sing a word-perfect verse of 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika'. As if clutching a new gift, he goes to bed with the flag and wakes up singing "God Bless Africa".'

Of all my bosses, when Matthew was young, Jane Raphaely was perhaps the most empathetic. I had worked at Cosmopolitan magazine in the early 90s (after I had exhausted the possibilities of lugging stepladders through crowded streets), and on those days when my child was ill or needed to go to physiotherapy, it helped that she was an editor who championed women's rights, particularly the right to be part of the world and a mother at the same time.

In a recent interview on radio, after the launch of her autobiography, Unedited, she said South African domestic helpers had been pivotal in freeing her to climb the impressive ladder she has. Although it somewhat begs the question of what those domestic helpers themselves do both to support and raise their families, at least she was aware that children are a central part of life (she had four while pursuing a solid and glittering career).

Perhaps the most taxing days as a journalist and mother, though, were when I worked in radio news as the political editor of the SABC. Everything was new then: the technology, parliament, even the SABC. There was a novel sense of the country, too, because I had to manage a team that covered all the new official languages, 11 of them.

The days were long and, often, so were the nights. The situation called for elaborate childcare arrangements, particularly as my husband had moved to Gauteng to a new job and I had stayed on in Cape Town. I recruited one of the daycare workers to sleep at my house three nights a week, and once a week my son went to his grandparents.

Oddly, he did not seem to resent this. On the contrary, he was simply intrigued by the country he was growing up in and with. I took him to parliament to see the queen, and he was only slightly disappointed when he found out that it was not the queen of England, but Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

On another occasion, we encountered the white-haired Pan-Africanist Congress leader Clarence Makwetu on the steps of the Marks Building, where my of!ce was. Matthew gasped. 'Is that Mandela?'

How did we manage, him and me? Okay, actually, but there was no master plan. We lurched through the days hoping the strings we had tied around the bundle that was our lives held.

And my job gave him insights into a country that was then a heady place to work in as a journalist. Perhaps the highlight for both him and me was one wet Easter weekend when we were on holiday in Cape Town. My phone rang while I was in the car. It was

Parks Mankahlana, then spokesperson for the president, asking me to call an Eastern Cape number. Urgently.

I called, gave my name. Madiba came to the phone.

He wanted to tell me a story about how he had been attacked that morning by a swarm of bees in his bathroom.

I had returned to working for a newspaper then and the story I wrote went around the world. I reflected, many years later, in an article, about what the incident meant and what it said about Madiba's savvy way of dealing with the media.

But what I did not or could not write about was my son's reaction. He was then about nine. He sat behind me in the car as I spoke and scribbled, and as he heard the conversation coming to an end, he waved his arms urgently. 'Let me speak to him,' he mouthed. I asked the gracious statesman if he would mind, and he agreed. My son held the phone to his ear and went silent. A smile spread across his face. I don't know what Madiba said to him because, overwhelmed as he was, his replies were shy and mainly monosyllabic.

But to this day, Matthew remembers that call. He remembers that it was because of my strange job that kept me from home for such long hours that he got to speak to, not just any president, but President Mandela.

That may be the reason why today he is in his final year at Rhodes University, doing a postgraduate course in health journalism, and talking to me about how journalism, when done right, can make the world better. Perhaps, in his studies, he may find a palliative for the stress that grips those of us who are both journalists and parents.

Pippa Green is Associate Professor and Head of the Journalism Programme at the University of Pretoria. She has been a journalist and writer for the past 25 years.