3 Jul 2013

Groundhog deja vu outside Mandela’s Pretoria clinic

The news headlines, again, from South Africa… and something tells you you’ve heard them before. The ailing father of the nation, Nelson Mandela, is in hospital. His condition: critical – but stable.

He may even be on the mend – if you believe the president’s emails. But nobody does. But then again, nobody, it seems, really knows.

On the basis of some speculative intelligence from a plethora of impeccable sources here on the ground, a Big Decision was made in London. Most of my Channel 4 News team, including Big Jon, have shipped out again, having shipped in en masse at the end of last week. I remain. Just in case.

This is now the fourth time this has happened. Nelson’s fate hangs there, like the Sword of Damocles, over journalists worldwide. Jon and I have now been scrambled to three Madiba Scares each; once I raced in from Bangkok, another time from London. This time from Qatar. This pattern has been repeated with TV news companies right across the world.

They pile into Johannesburg with satellite dishes, tele-prompters, cameras, correspondents, big-gun presenters, producers. Hotels are booked up, guests lined up, live slots firmed up. We bump into each other in hotel lobbies and restaurants and try to divine what the other lot’s up to.

Then dear old Madiba stabilises or improves and the whole show’s stood down. Weirdly, today, just as in the first big Mandela scare in January 2011, there’s revolution in the air in Cairo, where two of our Mandela cameramen should now have landed.

Déjà vu – all over again… as they say. Oh yes, we really, truly have all been here before.

As, of course, has Madiba – and none of us would ever want to make light of his condition. Everyone in this country and all over the world loves the ancient patriarch much too much to want to see him go through ventilator déjà vu. Meanwhile, his prolonged passing has been causing great angst and upset among his big, bickering, dysfunctional family.

But in the parallel universe that is the international press corps, a dark comedy plays out as the totemic Mandela says his long goodbye. The other day, Makaziwe, his eldest daughter, cast us as a mendacious pack of predators and scavengers, straight out of the Lion King.

“It’s truly like vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo,” she told state TV, “waiting there for the last of the carcass. That’s the image we have as a family.”

Ouch. While we sympathise with the family’s state of perpetual anxiety, it’s got to be said that the image we, the press, have of them is of a pride of ill-tempered, hungry lions all devouring each other as Mufasa, the king, lies mortally wounded.

“Mandela vs Mandela” is one banner headline this morning. Two unedifying family disputes are raging in the courts even as the old man lies in the Pretoria MediClinic in some ghastly medical limbo.

By fighting each other so publicly, the Mandela clan has thrown us vultures ever more tasty morsels to prey on as we continue with our macabre waiting game. And such is the global interest in this totemic figure that, in our heads, it absolves us of all the vulture-crimes Makaziwe may wish to charge us with.

Flying to Johannesburg from Qatar last week, I couldn’t sleep and decided to watch Groundhog Day. Again. It had been a while. I watched it as a sort of joke, though (even though I was the only one in on it). But I never imagined that the joke would be on me.

The 1993 film is a cracker, where the central character, Phil, a TV weatherman played by Bill Murray, finds himself repeatedly reliving the events of a particular day, when a little groundhog emerges, as local tradition dictates, to determine whether or not it’s going to be an early spring. Phil’s reported on this on three or four successive years already, and he approaches his assignment with some pretty unhealthy cynicism, frankly.

Now, me and my fellow hacks are infinitely more fortunate than Phil the weatherman, to be standing in the South African sunshine – albeit outside a hospital – rather than stuck on the dreaded Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney.

But every time I go to the hospital, I get this like total groundhog déjà vu thing.

Because there, every day – just as they did the last time this happened – are the same correspondents and crews standing under the arc-lights, speculating for their audiences in South Africa, Britain, America, France, Gemany, China, Australia, the Middle East… right across the planet.

The 24/7 rolling news guys get groundhogged most. The indefatiguable Alex, from Sky, with Gar on camera, imparting her knowledge hour after hour, day in, day out, keeping it fresh and trying to avoid – as she wonders around with Gar’s mobile satcam – walking through Karen’s shot for the Beeb. Or is it Andrew today?

And there’s Debora from CBS causing trouble and Peter from Al-Jaz (he’s got quite a Pretoria tan now) and Nkpile from CNN and there’s the guy from ETV I saw on telly this morning!

And then it’s my turn to step up to the mic and put in my earpiece and check my level with London, stare down the lens barrel and off I go too. Today is Madiba’s 26th day in hospital in this his fourth emergency admission since December and yes, the Joburg G-hog guys have been out there reliving Nelson Mandela’s final days day after day after day. Lord, please have mercy!

In the film, Phil the weatherman takes an old man to hospital, where he dies. When Phil goes to check on him, the nurse tells him: “Sometimes, people just die.” Phil’s response? “Not today.” When he relives this, the next day, he makes sure the old man does not die. Weird.

Of course, there are some elements in the Groundhog Day film which have no bearing on my parallel reality here. Soren, our cameraman-editor, bears abosolutely no resemblance, for example, to Larry, cameraman for Phil the weatherman.

In the film, Larry tells a pretty girl: “People just don’t understand what’s involved in this. This is an art-form! You know, I think that most people just think that I hold a camera and point at stuff, but there is a heck of a lot more to it than just that.” Soren would never need to say that. His artistry is unquestioned and has kept me in a job for years. (I will discover later, when he’s read this, whether that’s got me off the hook.)

Phil the weatherman’s producer is played by Andie MacDowell. My Andy – Lee – does not, to be honest, bear much resemblance to her. For starters, he is very definitely male. That said, some of our conversations do have echoes…

Phil: I am asking you for help.
Rita (Andie MacDowell): Okay, what do you want me to do?
Phil: I don’t know. You’re a producer. Come up with something.

Deja entendu.

In the film, Phil the weatherman only manages to escape from his timewarp hell by working on his inner self and becoming an altogether better person. Maybe there’s a moral in the story there for me and for all my fellow groundhog correspondents, producers, cameramen and engineers standing outside the Pretoria MediClinic.

It’s OK, guys, hard as it may seem, tomorrow’s a new day.

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