IT WAS tense in the tiny boardroom. No amount of air conditioning could cool the high temperatures.
On one side of the table sat a younger Julius Sello Malema, flanked by his most loyal lieutenant, Floyd Shivambu, to the left, and Pule Mabe to the right.
On the other side sat Ferial Haffajee, her finger pointed at Malema, who, with his left hand raised slightly, was breathing fire and brimstone.
I sat on Ferial’s right, with Melanie-Ann Feris next to me. A visibly shaken George Matlala sat next to her, his left hand covering his mouth.
The year was 2010. Ferial was the editor and I was executive editor and second in charge at City Press. Feris was the news editor and Matlala was our most trusted political reporter.
Malema was still president of the ANC Youth League, Shivambu his deputy and Mabe the treasurer-general.
I posted a picture of this meeting on social media last week, and many of my followers and friends thought it was new, even thought we look much younger in the image. This scores my point that tensions between politicians and journalists are nothing new, but also that dialogue will always break the walls between us.
The man who had brought us together under these unpleasant circumstances was investigative reporter Piet Rampedi, whose series of reports on tender corruption in Limpopo had irked the ANC’s young lions.
Malema felt targeted and had called to ask for a meeting to discuss the stories. It had become my problem to try to find a truce. I spoke to Ferial and she agreed to the meeting.
It helped that I have always had a relationship of mutual respect with both Malema and Shivambu, so I was open to the meeting. I am always more for dialogue than confrontation.
I remember the meeting as if it were yesterday. When Malema and his entourage arrived at our offices in Auckland Park, many colleagues didn’t know what to expect. Some were frightened.
The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. We moved to the boardroom and the fireworks began.
Back then, Malema was much more troublesome than he is today.
I sat there, listening, asking questions and defending Rampedi as well as our editorial decisions, without adding more petrol to the fire.
With each minute, the tension thawed, and by the end of the meeting, which must have lasted about an hour, we had found one another.
I remembered this moment this week as tensions between Malema and some media colleagues escalated following Jacques Pauw’s bizarre decision to post an aerial picture of the Hyde Park home of the EFF leader’s wife’s home.
We can never defend such unethical conduct, but this incident shows just how far some among us have sank in their efforts to sink Malema, who has been a thorn in the backside of the media since his ANCYL days.
Malema is a lot of trouble, but he, too, deserves some privacy and respect.
The tensions between politicians and media are unhealthy, with no winners and losers. Politicians need the media as much as we need them.
That’s why the EFF’s decision not to agree to meet the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) was ill-advised. And I told Malema so.
There can never be any justification to attack journalists, even if you don’t agree with them. If there are inaccuracies with stories, use all available channels to get justice.
That was the message we sent to Malema during that meeting in 2010, and that’s the message I tried to put across to him last week.
Indeed, if the EFF are the government in waiting they claim to be, they must commit to the freedom of the media and iron out their differences with the journalists concerned.
But that’s not to say we agree with the conduct of those journalists who have decided to become part of political factions and are fighting the battles of the politicians they like.
It’s a dangerous game to play.