Mandy Wiener, SA’s crime reporter, on why raising toddlers is tougher than dealing with criminals

On her very first assignment as a roving radio reporter, standing on a pavement in Houghton, Johannesburg, microphone in hand, Mandy Wiener found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. Acting on instinct and adrenaline, she hit the record button, and captured her own robbery in progress.

Happily, it turned out to be a baptism of fire only in the metaphorical sense – the robber, realising he was on air, swiftly fled the scene – and Mandy went on to enjoy a thriving career as Joburg’s most hardcore crime reporter, capturing the beat of the street and building up a prime network of contacts in the highest echelons of political office and the lowest ranks of the criminal underworld.

Her books on the mysterious murder of the controversial businessman, Brett Kebble, and on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, established Mandy as a journalist with her finger firmly on the fast-beating pulse of South African society, and despite – or maybe because of – the gruelling stories she has covered, she remains an  “incredibly patriotic” South African who loves living in a country where there are so many stories to tell.

Now the senior crime and investigative reporter for News24, Mandy sat down with Ruda to talk about the joys and challenges of journalism, and why raising toddlers is far harder than dealing with any politician or criminal.

Hello and welcome to another session of the Change Exchange. My guest, Mandy Wiener, a fellow journalist, award-winning – if I may say that – author of four books, inveterate Tweeter. I just said she’s one of my favourite Tweeters but then also mother and wife, we’ll talk about all of it.  Your first job was at 702 – did you want to do that or did you, did it just happen?

I am sure you know that being a journalist is something that’s inherent, you know it’s one of those things that’s just in your blood. So, I always knew that I wanted to be a journalist. I have a photograph of myself in a pram at two years old reading Newsweek and, you know, having to be honest it’s like watching you on Carte Blanche was probably one of the big motivating factors to becoming a journalist and I thought that I wanted to be like that. I want to be like Christiane Amanpour and go cover war zones. So, I immediately went to go and study journalism at RAU, which is now UJ.

And why did you choose RAU?

So I mean most people say why didn’t you go to Rhodes? But I came from a small town. I grew up in Polokwane, so I wanted to come to Joburg and people had told me about the journalism course at RAU, so I suppose that’s the reason I went, and I started working at RAU Radio. And then, the first job I got was at 702 was actually writing traffic for Aki Anastasiou and for Harry Sideropoulos on The Rude Awakening and I used to call screen over nights, so I would go in at 12 o’clock on a Friday night. I go out and then go into the studio and then answer the phone calls from the people who were listening to the show in, the insomniacs and whoever else is awake at that hour and that was the first job that I had.

The weird and the wonderful. What’s the best thing about radio?

Radio and there’s such a craft to it. So, my favourite thing about radio was telling stories through sound and I loved spending hours, busy choosing my sound bites and blending them together and choosing the right quotes and people, you know, the emotions that come through that’s that, that you can tell stories through people’s voices. So often, I would go out to a protest or a crime scene or something like that and I try and find innovative ways to use sound to tell that story and make it come alive; because you can transport a listener to the scene of a shooting or of a protest. Whereas, if they’re just reading the story it can become quite one-dimensional; but when you actually hear the emotion of someone, you hear the gun going off, hear tear gas canister or police tape flapping in the wind. All of that tells a story in a very unique way.

Your first story was actually quite mundane, it was what? Water cuts in Houghton?

Yes, it started off mundane, it was the first story. I begged Katy Katopodis for a job in the EWN newsroom and she sent me out to go and interview residents of Houghton about water cuts and I was standing on the pavement busy ringing a doorbell and two guys pulled up and pulled a gun on me and held me up and started asking me for all of my possessions but I was holding a microphone with a mic flag. And the one stopped suddenly and said to me, are you a reporter? and I said yes and for some reason, I don’t know why I, but I’d hit record. So I was recording this whole exchange and I said yes I’m a reporter and he apologised to me and he started giving me back all of my possessions and it ended up on the front page of The Star, because I’d recorded the whole thing, you know on The John Robbie Show, in case he gave me a job as a result of that do most of …

That must have confirmed everything you had thought the job might be?

Yes, I mean obviously really all of it, sure. I mean we always have this idea that it’s going to be glamorous, which it’s not and that it’s going to be high adrenaline, which it often is but there are also these moments of completely mundane, you know, boring periods of time, where nothing happens. A lot of waiting around. I mean, I’ve lost hours of my life waiting for press conferences to start and politicians to make decisions about anything. So, it did confirm that, and I know that having a front-row seat to history in watching breaking news unfold, you know it’s something that is addictive. I was saying to somebody recently that as a breaking news journalist, it felt like I was on crack, on news crack all the time. That I was constantly chasing the next breaking news story.

But that is, by definition, bite-sized, yes? And daily, it’s 24 hours – oh well, even shorter these days. What made you decide to write a really thorough in-depth book, at the age of 28?

So that was … the problem is that I felt like everything that I was doing was so shallow and it was so transient. That we would do radio stories and then they would disappear into the, into the ether and you put so much work and effort into them and then they they’re gone and I loved books so I’ve always thought that, that I wanted to write a book because I loved the idea of a book and … but I hadn’t written anything more than a magazine article and I went to my publisher Terry Morris at Pan Macmillan, and I said I want to write a book and, I mean, she was mad to give me a book deal, on the back of one magazine article, but she did. And I don’t think I realised at the time the gravity of what I was doing. I wrote Killing Kebble in about three months and I never thought that it would have the reaction that it did you know. It just never occurred to me that it would resonate with people.

You said that you knew you had a book, when you had the interviews with the three murderers?

Yeah definitely.

How did that come about?

Um, I just asked really. I think that’s the problem that journalists often make is that they are too afraid to ask, and I just had this idea that I really want to interview them, and I’ve built up a relationship with their lawyer and with them and I wanted to tell their story. And I don’t think at the time, oh what a big coup, I’m going to get these guys to talk and then it’s going to be a fantastic book. I just wanted to hear their story and I was very fortunate that they trusted me and that they told the story.

Were they in jail at the time?

No, no yeah, they were though … I mean, the thing about the Kebble killers is that they were given indemnity from prosecution. So, they were able to stand up in a court of law and tell the world about this, this entire incident; where the gun failed to go off and the car overheated and how Brett Kebble drove to his own death three times, and then they could go home to their families. So, I would go see Mikey Schultz at his house with his children around and go to restaurants and things like that, because they weren’t in jail and they were not going to be, you know. They knew exactly … I mean, they literally got away with murder.

And they know, they know that. How did you get them to talk to you? A young girl on the other side of the table.

Um, so I think that it was my lack of judgment of them, and that I was willing to give them an opportunity to speak. So I think often what happens is journalists are quite quick to judge and to paint people with a certain brush, whereas I really wanted to just hear from them and let them tell the story; and that’s what I’ve always tried to do, regardless of who I’m interviewing, is to give them an opportunity to get their version across. And I’ve been criticised for that as well because, you know, people argue that I give them a platform, but my view is I would rather hear their version and understand their world better, so that we know what we’re dealing with.

You do that for the audience, I think?

Yeah, I think so and I think that’s … that as a journalist you always have to remember that you are a conduit and that people are telling you stories, and I try not to make a judgment call or act as a filter in any way, you know. I’d rather put all the versions out there as a conduit and if people decide for themselves what they … what they believe.

The book must have changed your life completely, it sold more than a hundred thousand and this was, what, 10 years ago?

I mean it completely … I mean, it raised my profile and it turned me into what some people have, perhaps, disparagingly referred to as a “brand journalist”, you know, or a “celebrity journalist”. But you never quite know how to deal with that, right? Yeah, so when people recognise you or where they know your name and I still find that quite awkward. Like, I would … I still find a quite stranger, people walk into the room and say are you Mandy Wiener? although they hear my name. You know because I’m not that, you know … I’m just a journalist, who wants to wear jeans and All Stars and run into crime scenes, you know. Inherently I think, that’s it. But it changed, and it also makes a difference, you know, if I phone somebody and ask them for an interview – you get more access because of reputation because, in this industry, that’s definitely … your reputation, that’s everything.

The second book was Vusi Pikoli, did that connection come through the research that you did for Killing Kebble?

Yeah so it did, because he obviously was instrumental … the reasons he was suspended, one of them was because of the Jackie Selebi case and because of his decision to grant immunity to the Kebble Killers and then I sat through his inquiry. The Ginwala Inquiry into his fitness to hold office and I got to know him and then I just nagged him for ages to write a book and he eventually relented, and it was quite different, you know. To write a book on your own about murder and crime and then to do, you know, somebody else’s book with them. Which was kind of a more sincere book. It was his own journey. It was about his … what he calls his second initiation, so it was it was completely different, but it was an interesting experience.

You got quite a bit of flak because it was seen as a whitewash. How did you deal with that?

Yeah, so I mean the point that I always made was that it was him telling his version of events and, you know, I still believe it’s … I made a point of asking him questions in the book and that’s why he didn’t write it himself, so I asked him about his decision to grant immunity to killers and other decisions that he had made and pushed him for answers on them. So, you know, I do think that, you know, that most of those answers come out in the book.

And the response is the response, and it’s not your responsibility. And then, why did you think Oscar needed another book?

Yeah, I’m not sure actually, yeah there was so much pressure on us as journalists around the Oscar Pistorius story. You know that 24, 48 hours after Oscar had shot Reeva, were the most insane days I’ve ever experienced as a journalist. So, we were literally putting down phones and picking up phones doing interviews with CNN and BBC and Sky and every radio station in Ireland and Canada and New Zealand. They wanted some kind of local voice on air. It was insane, I mean we always thought that the death of Nelson Mandela would be the big news story of the kind of era, and the coverage of Oscar was just phenomenal. I suppose that’s why I was, I was asked to do the book in literally a week or two after it had happened, and it was an international deal so we thought … we were like, let’s go with this. But it was tough, because the by the end of it there was so much media coverage, it had been exhausted and we try to do the comprehensive book. So, it’s quite long but it really is comprehensive about the book, so we try to interview as many of the role players and the characters and the experts as possible.

You say we?

I wrote it with Barry Bateman.

Yeah, yeah.

So that was also a unique experience I had never written properly or co-authored with anyone.

How does it work …?

In practice, it’s interesting but he wrote, I wrote and we both touched every single word of the book. So, he would write chapters, I would write chapters and then we’d both go over each other’s chapters and we also get on really well and complement each other, so it was good. So, it was a learning experience; it was very novel.

But a book, writing a book is a completely different way of being, from the daily news. How do you switch? Which one do you prefer?

So, it’s completely different. It’s so … I actually like to do both at the same time, so that you can find different outlets and … But writing a book is a very, very solitary experience and people don’t realise this. It is long hours locked away in a room with yourself in a computer, it can be a very taxing experience on you, on your family and, also, you reach a point where you just want it to end. You know, because also …. I mean …

Like being pregnant?

Yeah exactly, exactly, that’s a great analogy, because you envisage the end product and you just need to get there so and it’s very laborious. You know it takes very, very long and you have to be so self-disciplined to actually sit down and get those words on a page every day … And, I mean, it’s very well documented; the things that you find to procrastinate, when you’re on deadlines, are just unbelievable. You read every article you can find the about arbitrary stuff on the internet, so …

Applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair … focus. And now you’ve written Ministry of Culture?

Crime.

Oh sorry, sorry, that was a bit of a slip. Now you’ve written Ministry of Crime, which is a kind of follow-up, almost, on Killing Kebble and it is, as you described it yourself … that the kind of the connection points between the criminal bosses, the politicians and the police, the law enforcement agencies and it’s, it can be quite bleak to, you know, walk away from that and think there’s no hope.

Yeah, so what I’ve tried to do is look at the criminal underworld in the country, over the last decade or so, but then also look at the evisceration of law enforcement agencies and this deliberate malicious campaign to hollow out the NPA and SARS and the Hawks and NIA and all of that … And at the end of it, you know … at, you know what, again we are allowing it to happen … On and on again. If we’re not vigilant, then we’ll see our law enforcement agencies being further eviscerated and you know, I want people to understand the importance of an active civil society and …

What does that mean in practical terms, what can people do?

So, people often ask me that question. They’re like, well, what difference am I gonna make? And there are things that people can do, you know. They can tell journalists about what’s going on, if they know, they can give money to journalists like me or to my colleagues at amaBhungane or, you know, something like that, but people can also, they can write to newspapers, they can phone radio stations, they can contact the local political representatives. If you have got a particular skill that you can offer to an NGO or a civil society organisation. If you can give to Freedom Under Law or Helen Suzman Foundation or Section 27; some kind of assistance. I have a friend who’s an actuary, who volunteered his time to assist at Section 27 with the Life Esidemeni case, just out of you know, pure civic duty. And things like that are so important for people to do, so that we can be active and be involved and hold power to account.

It’s the basics of an open society and very much so. Every individual takes responsibility.

And I find that in South Africa, we have often had a culture of complacency and we almost have this, this apathy …. we find ourselves quite … We’re so inundated with bad news – there’s so much about state capture and the Gupta leaks and about crime; that many people want to just bury their heads in the ground like an ostrich and ignore that it goes on and listen to music in their cars or just not watch the news, because it’s easier to do that. But you can’t, you have to know what’s going on and that’s why the media is so important and supporting journalism is so important. So that we do hold power to account; so that people know what’s happening.

How has all this understanding and knowledge changed you, do you think? You’re a small-town girl from a conservative Jewish background?

Yes, I think that I’ve always been quite worldly, in a way. I mean, my parents always made sure I’ve travelled a lot, growing up. I was, I read widely. So I, you know, I think that even though I grew up in a fairly conservative environment, I always had a very liberal progressive outlook on the world. Which made for an interesting relationship with my parents, because I was always, you know pushing boundaries and trying to change their world as well, you know. But I do think that, having reported on this for so long, definitely makes me more cynical. And when you’re in journalism for a long time, you become a bit cynical and jaded and, you know, I think that’s why I don’t do as much breaking news, as I used to, because it became so repetitive, that you become a bit disillusioned with it.

The villain of the week …

And you try and get some perspective and tell important stories.

You’ve just joined News24 and I think it’s quite a coup for them, is that in the same vein, that you want to shift to maybe longer form?

I’ve always loved long-form. So, I love really getting into a story and understanding it and all its complexities, you know. I love it, when you can unpack something and really get to know it and, you know, that’s often a real indulgence for journalists, you know. A lot of our newsrooms are stretched, they’re understaffed, you know juniorisation of newsrooms and it’s not often that we get the opportunity to do long form and to do more investigative work. So, it’s something that I would definitely like to look at. You know, podcasts for me are really an avenue that I’ve always wanted to explore, and I’ve done a bit of, because I still love radio so much, so you know. I do hope to do a lot more of that and really get, you know, to do a deep dive into an issue, rather than being parachuted in ad to cover it for one day … is, you know, always something as a journalist that you don’t want to do.

We’ve always joked that you become a one-week expert on everything and then you become …

Or one-day experts on everything, particularly in radio, where you just get thrown and usually you have to be an expert on something different every day.

But News24 like so many other news outlets, is really struggling to pay for itself, to monetise, how do you see this transition and you joining that world now? Can one build it to something that people are willing to pay for?

I think, so … I mean, I think there’s been a real shift in the news environment around the world where, when newspapers are closing down everywhere, you know. There’s always the big debate in the media about what’s in the public interest versus what’s interesting to the public, and the way the people consume news and what they consume. So, people are always more interested to read about the Kardashians than they are about, you know, the war in Syria. Unfortunately, that’s just the way that the world works and, with people buying fewer newspapers and consuming news on their phones or devices, I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to go that way. I think it’s just the way that the world is changing, and I think people need to also appreciate the work and the value of good journalism.

You are a very active Tweeter; how do you see the role, you know? Many people kind of pooh-pooh Twitter and say it’s just a home of gossip and nonsense. My password is Tien-sekonde twak.

[LAUGHING] You should change that now.

How do you see the role of something like Twitter?

So, the role of Twitter six, seven years ago is very different to what it is today. So, when I first started Tweeting, it was the first court case, that had ever been live Tweeted in the country … was the Jackie Selebi and Kebble cases and it was this unique concept. Then we were sitting in there and live Tweeting and it was so exciting, and everyone was following us, and it became this amazing platform for people to consume news practically live. And we saw the Oscar Pistorius case and it was huge and, you know, people were loving it and I’ve got hundreds of thousands of followers and, you know, became Twitterazzi or whatever they call it … But in the last year or two, I think that what has changed considerably, I think it’s become a lot more toxic … it’s become a lot more hostile. You have to be far more conscious and more careful about what you Tweet, you know. It’s become a platform for abuse. To get dragged on the, on the streets of Twitter … it’s not such an uncommon occurrence particularly for a journalist. So, it has changed the way that I Tweet. I mean it’s made me far less opinionated on Twitter. I try and Tweet more factually or links to articles that are right, because you just can’t engage over constant … you know, constantly, and people hide behind avatars. And, you know, often I have Tweeted something that I think is fairly innocuous and you don’t realise that your worldview or your lived experience, it’s different to somebody else’s lived experience and you may be offending them or you may be saying something that gets you into a world of trouble, so I’m far more conscious about, about how I deal with Twitter now.

Are you a planner or do you …there’s a door open shall I? Shan’t I?

Oh, a bit of both you know. Like I am definitely always well prepared and researched thoroughly and always make sure…

Yes, but career wise?

I suppose when the door opens, I walk through it very much so. I think you also make your own luck, so you know, that’s definitely been a mantra that I’ve lived by. Often, I say, ah so lucky, I’m so lucky you know, the way things work out, but you make your own luck in life.

How did that manifest in your personal life? How did you meet Sean, your husband?

He was persistent and wouldn’t go away, really. Yeah, at the time when I met him I was working so hard, I was chasing the next breaking news story and I really had my foot on the pedal quite heavily. And I didn’t really have time in my life for a relationship and wasn’t so interested in one, but we met through mutual friends and … as I say, he just persisted. I tried very hard to get rid of him. I’m very glad that I didn’t.

So, what made you decide in the end that this is worth it?

Because a few years, you know, I just realised that he was the right person for me and that was, that, really … you know. It was … he understood me, and you know, you know a lot of people can be intimidated by, about what we do, and …. you know. People often say to me: “How does your husband feel about what you do and the security threats and dealing with all of these guys?” and I just say, have you seen him? Because he is very big, he’s very muscular. So, but he also, he knew, I mean it’s on my packaging, he knew exactly what he was getting into.

And what makes it work?

I think mutual respect for one another. I think a common belief system is very important that we were both raised in, in much the same way. I mean he doesn’t even read my books, so you know it’s not like he’s a journalist who’s interested in what I’m interested in, you know. He always jokes, that he only looks at books and reads them if they’ve got pictures and big writing. But I think if you’ve got the same belief system, it’s very important for a marriage and to raise children.

You have two little ones and how old are they now?

Four and two.

And how did they change your life?

Yeah, completely. So, raising children is far harder than dealing with any politician or criminal. It’s easily the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. But I think it forced me to just slow down, it forced me to not place as much emphasis on my work, to not be as consumed or as invested in it. I’m just consumed and invested in a different way now. So, I think it’s definitely given me more of a balance, if you can call it that.

Did they force you to grow up, in some way?

Yeah definitely, oh yeah … Like, it’s proper adulting, you know. You’ve really got to be responsible for other living things, you know, little humans and that’s huge responsibility. So definitely forces you to grow up.

You want them to be aware, so that they can react in what way?

So that they … I want them to be non-judgemental, but I also want them to appreciate other people’s lived experiences and other people’s upbringing and experiences and their outlooks on life and to not be as closeted as I was … definitely … growing up, you know, in apartheid South Africa, in Pietersburg, you know. So, I want them to understand that and you’ve got to do as much as you can as a parent to ensure that.

You’ve lived in Johannesburg, since you came to University here, do you want to stay? Or do you have a plan to emigrate?

Oh no, I’m staying. You know, most of my family actually lives overseas and I’ve chosen to stay here, because I’m just incredibly patriotic and love this country. So, you know, it’s a tough time, I mean a lot of people are undecided about the future of the country, a lot of people are considering what I like to call their plan Bs. But you know, our decision is we’re here, and this is home. And, you know, I feel that as a journalist, I’ve got an important role to play in uncovering stories and telling the truth and finding the truth and holding power to account … and there’s lots of stories to tell in South Africa.

Always. Mandy Wiener all of the very best with that and good luck with your new phase in your career. I hope it goes fantastically well, also for the sake of News24.

And filled with lots of good juicy stories.

Indeed!

Thank you.

Until next time, goodbye.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.