BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Stephen Grootes is one of South Africa’s leading political journalists and commentators. His new book, SA Politics Unspun, is a punchy, easy-to-understand deciphering of the South African political landscape, telling you all about the organisations, factions and personalities that shape it.
How did the book come about?
It came about really because when I first entered the political reporting field, I found it really quite baffling. I simply couldn’t understand why some people were important, and why some were not. And I didn’t get why some comments seemed to be banner headlines, and others were ignored. So the book in a way, is a “how to” guide for anyone in the same position as I was back then.
You’re EWN’s senior political reporter, host Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk’s Midday Report and write for the Daily Maverick. Where did you conjure the time and energy to write a book too?
Firstly, I married incredibly well. My wife took most of the brunt, and disappeared with the kids when necessary. It also helps to actually be interested in what you’re doing. I still find our politics just fascinating. Some people have The Bold and the Beautiful as their daily soap opera, others have the Super 15 or the PSL. Mine is politics, I wake up every morning, hungry to see what’s changed over the last eight hours.
How do you balance your reportage of the sometimes short-lived dramas of SA’s political scene with being able to observe and analyse the broader political patterns that these are often a symptom of?
Great question. It’s important to not label a once-off or a twice-off set of events as a trend. I think writing for the Daily Maverick, and the feedback I get as a result, has really taught me to think about what I write, and to properly interrogate any thoughts I may have. The point is, in political reporting, pretty much everything is opinion, you just have to have confidence in your ability to analyse events properly, to back up your opinion.
How do you avoid becoming jaded about South African politics?
Many people see our politics as monolithic, basically a fight between the ANC and the DA. Once you spend time with the characters behind it, the people who make up the Tripartite Alliance [the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party], and the people who fight amongst each other within these parties, then you too will get hooked. Essentially, once you know the people involved, you have an interest in what happens, and it suddenly becomes really interesting.
You’ve stuck your neck out by making estimates about how well the different political parties will do at the 2014 general elections. What made you do this and are there any estimates you’d now revise?
I did it because it’s a really good way of starting a conversation about our opinions about politics. To make predictions is always risky, and there is a huge health warning around them, but it makes you think about who is powerful and who is not, and who is growing and who is not. It’s a really good way for a reader to understand what you, as the author, think is going to happen. Is it risky? Of course. Are all of the predictions correct? If they are, I’ll buy everyone reading this a drink! But generally, I’m still pretty happy with them. I think the EFF might do better than my original estimate, but otherwise I still think the ANC will get around 60% and the DA around 22-24%.
As election season heats up, what are the significant changes and developments you’ve observed in the time since the book was published?
The EFF has done better than I expected, so far. The DA has had a few missteps. The ANC has pretty much gone as expected.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
Finding the time to do it. It was fun writing it, but simply finding the time to do it was always going to be tricky.
Who’s your favourite and least favourite South African politician?
Wow! What a question. I always enjoy speaking to Gwede Mantashe, the ANC Secretary General. He is quick to rip you off, and quicker to laugh if you respond in kind. As for my least favourite, you should check the book’s glossary, and see who is referred to as “some dude”.
Your most embarrassing encounter in politics?
There was the time my cell phone halted the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling Schabir Shaik’s case… but that’s a story for another time. I once had to ask Thabo Mbeki a really important question (would he resign after the Nicolson judgment? In the end he was recalled), and pretty much forgot my name when speaking to him. I’ve never told anyone that before, now that I think about it…
Any plans at this stage for another book?
Yes! It involves a time-travelling secret agent with a degree in intra-generational lawfare. (I’m a complete sci-fi freak. People who know me are amazed I wrote about politics rather than little green men…)