‘Brave? I’m the big­gest coward that you’ll ever en­counter’

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - WEEKEND TV -

Not many peo­ple can say they’ve wit­nessed his­tory in the mak­ing, but Sir Trevor Mc­Don­ald most cer­tainly can. The news vet­eran con­ducted the first in­ter­view with Nel­son Man­dela af­ter his re­lease from prison back in 1990 and, yes, he felt the pres­sure of such an im­por­tant task.

“I’m a bore about pre­par­ing for in­ter­views,” says the Trinidad and Tobago-born-jour­nal­ist, who got his big break pre­sent­ing the ITN early-evening news in 1989.

“I live and sleep them, dream about them. But (with Man­dela), the dif­fi­culty was, you are talk­ing to a man no­body has seen for 26 years.”

To mark what would have been the leader’s 100th birth­day, Sir Trevor (78) has re­turned to South Africa for a new ITV doc­u­men­tary ex­plor­ing the so­cial changes the na­tion has gone through.

We see him travel to the area known by some as ‘the mur­der cap­i­tal of the world’, Pollsmoor Prison, where Man­dela was held for six years, the ver­dant winelands of Fran­schhoek and var­i­ous in­ner-city en­claves.

It was a pro­foundly per­sonal jour­ney for the for­mer news­reader, who is as calm, thought­ful and cap­ti­vat­ing in real life as you’d ex­pect).

“I was al­ways shocked by the depth of South African poverty, the poverty of black South Africans and the ap­palling life of the town­ship peo­ple,” says the fa­ther-of-three, who lives with his wife, Josephine, in Lon­don.

“It is silly to have ex­pected a dra­matic change to that, be­cause eco­nomic fac­tors just wouldn’t al­low that in such a short time. I was still shocked to see peo­ple still grab­bing through garbage.”

One place he finds to be re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent in the eye-open­ing, one-off film is the fa­mous town­ship of Soweto, where real estate agent Mat­se­leng Mo­godi tells him she now sells lux­ury houses to the new black mid­dle-class.

He also meets white fam­i­lies who, once pro­tected by the eco­nomics of Apartheid, are now strug­gling to get by in a squat­ter camp in Mun­sieville.

“When I first heard about it (the squat­ter camp), I won­dered if they were try­ing to be just sep­a­rate again,” Sir Trevor says, his words softly spo­ken.

“In fact, their rea­son seems gen­uinely to have been to get away from the crime-rid­den ur­ban ar­eas.”

Since re­tir­ing from News At Ten in 2008, the pre­sen­ter has con­tin­ued to travel the world for a num­ber of suc­cess­ful doc­u­men­taries, such as Death Row 2018 with Trevor Mc­Don­ald.

Would he say he re­mains fear­less when it comes to his work?

“Fear­less?” he asks, wide-eyed. “I am the big­gest coward you will ever en­counter.

“You should have seen me when­ever some peo­ple fired AK-47s — I used to run the other way.

“But I like not only the travel, I love the ex­pe­ri­ence. Some­body says, ‘No mat­ter how much you read, noth­ing pre­pares you for ac­tu­ally be­ing there’, so, it is re­ally nice to be there.

“I love that life, I have al­ways liked it. I com­plain like hell but...,” he trails off, let­ting out a gen­tle laugh. There is one in­ter­view Sir Trevor found par­tic­u­larly nerve-rack­ing dur­ing his for­mi­da­ble ca­reer, which has spanned over 50 years.

“I was quite ex­er­cised about meet­ing Sad­dam Hus­sein,” he ad­mits. “They didn’t make it easy for us. They gave us a good run-around, so some of the events I would not do again.”

Some­thing that’s un­de­ni­able when in­ter­view­ing the ami­able Sir Trevor is just how great a sto­ry­teller he is.

When dis­cussing Hus­sein, he re­calls a crazy co­in­ci­dence that took place af­ter a din­ner in Lon­don re­cently.

“I was go­ing to the Tube and this big, burly guy tapped me on the shoul­der, and says, ‘You don’t re­mem­ber me, do you?’ I said, ‘To be very hon­est, I have drank too much to­day and, in any case, I am get­ting older, my brain is go­ing’.

“I thought it was a hu­mor­ous thing to say — he didn’t smile at all. He said to me, ‘I was one of your in­ter­preters when you saw Sad­dam Hus­sein’.”

It goes with­out say­ing the role of a jour­nal­ist has changed hugely, even just in the decade since Sir Trevor left News At Ten be­hind.

Asked whether he would go back and do his ca­reer all over again in to­day’s world, he an­swers care­fully.

“I have al­ways thought in­ter­view­ing is a great, great, great skill. You in­ter­view some­body on the pre­sup­po­si­tion that he has some­thing to say — then, for God’s sake, let him say it.” Trevor Mc­Don­ald: Re­turn To South Africa, ITV, Tuesday, 9pm

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