The German ambassador on neck pain, journalists and ballerinas
Journalists can be a real pain in the neck. I have to admit that this has been a regular and reoccurring thought of mine. For the past six years – before I came back to South Africa last year – I was the spokesman for Germany's foreign minister.
A wonderful, stressful and at times a rather "neck pain-inducing" job! On a typical day, journalists would call me with questions ranging from the conflict in Ukraine, our position on Syria, Kenya and Libya or the latest round of Brexit negotiations.
To say the job kept me on my toes would be a clear understatement. I was nowhere but on my toes! In fact, I think I could probably compete with any prima ballerina when it comes to graceful toe-balancing acts...
The pinnacle of all that balancing would happen three times a week: in a sober-looking blue-clad room in the centre of Berlin: the so-called "government press conference". This mundane title hides what in reality is a world-unique and at times quite unnerving event, where spokespeople from all ministries are grilled by Berlin's journalists – live and in stereo – on any, and I mean any, question they might have. There is nowhere to hide.
If you can't answer a question properly, no ballet acts will help you. You will simply make a fool of yourself. The conference is a pain in the neck. But it also is one of the most brilliant and important institutions we have in Berlin to ensure government accountability, to safeguard the freedom of the press and the right to information.
Journalists in this country have proved to be a formidable pain in the neck. Exactly as they should be!
I have to admit that I miss this conference sometimes. What I don't miss, however, is the extraordinary journalist work it reflects – and that is because I also find that brilliance right here in South Africa. South Africa and Germany can both pride themselves on their diverse, independent and highly professional media.
When I first worked here in South Africa about a decade ago, I became good friends with Mandy Rossouw – the brave journalist who first shed light on the Nkandla affair, and who would never give up until she got to the truth. Mandy tragically passed away five years ago. To me, she embodied what so many South African journalists today stand for: unwavering determination, sound principles, and maybe most of all: courage in face of the mighty.
Over the past few months, South Africa has undergone quite significant changes. There is a new president. There is a new government. There are investigations into state capture and corruption underway. I don't think any of these events could have and would have happened in the same way without the brave and determined work of journalists like Mandy Rossouw.
Mandy's name stands for so many in South Africa, then and today. The #Guptaleaks have unleashed a vivid public debate. Corruption, state capture, fake news – these are all crucial topics that South Africa's media has firmly put on the agenda.
You may think what you may about these topics – but what is important is that they need to be uncovered, discussed and addressed. And if wrongdoing occurs, people have to be held accountable. To put the finger on this - that is the role of journalism. That is the role of the fourth estate. That is the essence of democracy. The South African media has been taking up that role bravely and successfully – despite all difficulties.
Journalists in this country have proved to be a formidable pain in the neck. Exactly as they should be.