(I did this guest post on The Leo Africanus):
The mythic status that the news reader Riaan Cruywagen has attained in South Africa is almost akin to that of the US action hero Chuck Norris. Just like Norris, Cruywagen has been the subject of the kind of jokes (circulated by text or email, or told around braai fires) that ascribe superpowers to him in an ironic pastiche of the urban legend. One of these, ‘Riaan Cruywagen knows the news before it happens’ features as a on-screen quote in this quirky short film by Lucilla Blankenberg on the interesting website Why Democracy? (link). Cruywagen proudly (and only partly tongue in cheek) tells Blankenberg that he holds the world record for number of news bulletins read in Afrikaans. Cruywagen has been a familiar face on television since its (very late) arrival in apartheid South Africa in 1976, and is still to be seen on the SABC’s nightly news bulletins. Watching clips from his broadcasts over the years it is remarkable to see how little his physical appearance has changed. Rumours abound about how he manages this (wigs have been mentioned) but it is exactly this continuity through the tumultuous South African history as portrayed on (and in large parts ignored by) the public service broadcaster that explains Cruywagen’s appeal to especially the conservative Afrikaner viewership. When rumours surfaced in 2003 that the SABC planned to axe Cruywagen as part of a revamp, the Afrikaans community protested and Cruywagen remained firmly in his seat. For all Cruywagen’s claims to “neutrality” and “objectivity”, rhetorical constructs associated with the school of journalism that sees journalists as passive observers or stenographers of history, he has provided the apartheid regime’s propaganda machine with the genteel validation it needed to assure its white suburban viewers in the 1980s that although the country was burning around them, everything was still fine and the government was in control. Blankenberg’s film highlights some of the discrepancies between the world as it appeared on the TV screen and the world as it was lived on the streets back then, and confronts Cruywagen with the question of how he managed to work at the SABC at the time when so much skewing of reality was going on . Cruywagen unflinchingly responds that his role is that of a trained professional – ‘cool, calm and collected’ in the midst of the turmoil. This isn’t journalistic fairness and balance, but the abdication of responsibility and willful ventriloquism of His Master’s Voice. Fast forward to 2008. The ruling party might be splitting. The SABC is under fire for allowing government interference in its content. The SABC board is marred by the politics of ANC in-fighting. Cruywagen is still at his desk – cool, calm and all the rest. What does this tell us about the SABC?