This is ANA in Luanda, Gaborone, Algiers, Bujumbura and across Africa on TV, on radio and online.
News anchor: Welcome back.
In the run-up to local elections in South Africa next year, one independent candidate has already captured the spotlight. A doctor by profession, Leila Mashal has announced her intention to give up medicine and take up politics. Our reporter John Smith is outside the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where Dr Mashal is about to address a packed auditorium.
Not an obvious choice of venue, John. Is this the start of an elitist campaign for highbrow academics?
Reporter: On the contrary. We’ve been filming outside the Great Hall here at Wits since the middle of the afternoon, when people started arriving by the busload ahead of the presentation by Dr Mashal, or Leila, as she is more commonly called, and I can tell you, the scenes here have been phenomenal. Yes, there will of course be academic and specialist interest in what Leila has to say here tonight on a campus where she herself was a student back in the eighties. But remember, universities are not only about the academics and professors you mentioned – more importantly, they are about young people, who are by far the majority on any university campus up and down the country. During the course of the afternoon I’ve also spoken to many of those in the crowd and, yes, there are trade union representatives and activists and people from the media as one would expect, but there are also civil servants and teachers and health workers and factory workers, refugees, migrants, people from all walks of life, and of course, most strikingly, the young people, the students themselves.
News anchor: In an earlier report, you indicated that organisers had been caught a little off guard and that last-minute contingency plans have had to be made to cater for the crowd. How’s that been coming along?
Reporter: Yes, it quickly became clear that, as you say, organisers had underestimated the interest there would be in Dr Mashal’s appearance. By late afternoon, extra marshals had to be brought in to help control the enormous crowd that had gathered. We’ve been told that with the exception of only a very few reserved seats for the most senior university dignitaries, for the rest, those who arrive first are seated first. In fact, the Great Hall here behind me is now full and the doors have already been closed, but if I get our cameraman to pan over the crowd here outside the hall, people who haven’t been able to get seats inside, you can see that there are still several hundreds of people here. And this is the reason for the delay in getting things started here tonight. As you can see over there, the organisers have had giant screens set up to relay Dr Mashal’s address from inside the hall to this large overflow crowd here outside.
News anchor: Extraordinary … Now, I’d like to consider for a moment, if you will, John, the young people you mentioned. How would you explain their interest in an independent candidate so early on in an election campaign? After all, Leila Mashal isn’t from a political dynasty, and as an independent she doesn’t have the backing or support of huge party machinery.
Reporter: Absolutely. Regarding the younger demographic here tonight, two things. The first: online social networking. You’ll remember that Leila Mashal first announced her intention to stand for election on several social networking sites, which we’ve been told were set up specifically for campaigning reasons. But, as you also know, while Leila Mashal comes from outside the political establishment, she is not an entirely unknown entity either. She is, of course, also the wife of captured photojournalist Tariq Hassan, whose abduction from a hotel right here in Johannesburg seven months ago made headlines around the world. Up until the abduction, as you’ve said, she had lived the relatively quiet life of a doctor, working at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital just up the road from here. And that’s where the story turned, and here our viewers will remember the dramatic footage of the abduction filmed on cellphones by people at the scene, footage that of course went viral and has been circulating on the Internet ever since. So the launch of the Mashal campaign here tonight isn’t taking place in a vacuum. On the contrary, the backstory here is enormous. It’s not just the highprofile and very public abduction and all the media which that generated, there’s also, of course, the ongoing campaign to find Tariq Hassan, and the tens of thousands of young Internet-savvy activists and supporters who have really provided so much of the momentum to this story. You spoke about party machinery earlier. I can tell you, ‘party machinery’ is perhaps beginning to look somewhat outdated set beside the technological expertise driving the Mashal campaign.
News anchor: And what about her campaign issues, or rather, her campaign issue – because if we’ve understood correctly, she has only one. Is that right?
Reporter: Quite so, and this is very much the third reason for the diversity of the crowd here tonight. As you’ve indicated, Mashal is running a single-issue campaign, which isn’t about any of the popular or safe electioneering tickets like education or health or employment; it is in fact about something more fundamental than that – freedom. Now, one would have thought that following 1994, voters would see this as a done deal, a battle fought and won, so to speak, but apparently not, if tonight’s crowd is anything to go by. For everybody here tonight, that word ‘freedom’ obviously still resounds.
News anchor: Indeed, it has been two decades since South Africa’s transition to democracy and freedom. How would you account for this seemingly anachronistic election issue?
Reporter: Well, we’ll have to wait and see how she unravels that here tonight, but I think that if we look at the background to this campaign, implicit is obviously the freedom of her husband, though that – to her credit – has not been exploited by Leila Mashal herself, at least not so far. Whether she’ll ratchet that up as her campaign progresses remains to be seen. Another key factor, of course, would be voter disillusionment with the political process, the hubris of the political elite and the corruption. But there’s also another, more subtle dimension at play, and here it’s worth mentioning the large number of refugees and migrants present here tonight, most of whom won’t be able to vote for Leila but have nevertheless still come out to demonstrate their support.
News anchor: In other words, foreign nationals not eligible to vote in South Africa?
Reporter: That’s correct. Particularly African foreign nationals. I think this points to the kinds of issues Leila will be addressing tonight when she extrapolates on the issue of freedom. I expect that key amongst her concerns will be issues like safety and security, which Africans have struggled with for decades.
News anchor: Now we’re beginning to see images from inside the Great Hall, with the chancellor of the university taking to the stage to introduce Dr Mashal. I wonder if you could tell us quickly, John, what about Leila herself? How does she come across? What can our viewers expect to see tonight?
Reporter: Well, again, we’ll have to wait and see, because other than her brief endorsement of the campaign to find her husband, she really hasn’t spoken publicly on very many occasions. Her silence was, of course, a source of frustration for campaigners and activists, at one stage even fuelling speculation as to whether her silence was an indication of complicity in the abduction. But commentators who have had access to Leila Mashal all seem to be struck by her incredible calm, her quietness and, as somebody said earlier, her eloquence. These are words one hears again and again in relation to her. Whatever it is, she has something, which no doubt all candidates in this election will be watching. But what I will say is this: Whatever that ‘something’ is, Leila Mashal is due to speak again in Cape Town tomorrow night and Durban on Wednesday. If tonight’s crowd here in Johannesburg is anything to go by, my advice to people in those cities who are keen to hear her speak would be to join the queue early.
News anchor: Well, John, thank you for that. We’re beginning to hear applause from inside the auditorium now as Leila Mashal makes her way to the podium. She has obviously bided her time and used her silence well till now. Let’s cross live now into the auditorium to hear what she has to say.