‘Cut down to size’


Do you remember the big floods in central South Africa exactly thirty years ago? Bloemfontein was completely cut off from the outside world.
I was a television reporter for the SABC in those days and I was stranded in Petrusburg at some stage.
My colleagues got a helicopter pilot who was on a rescue mission, to drop a TV camera off for me. I had never done any camera work before, but desperate times called for desperate measures. After a 10-minute crash-course over a phone, I was rough and ready.
Two local Petrusburg attorneys offered to take me up in their four-seater Cessna. They were very proud of their brand-new pilots’ licenses. While I was struggling with the zoom-button on the heavy Betacam-video camera, the plane suddenly banked so sharply to the right, that I nearly fell off the back seat.
When I looked up, a much larger aircraft was passing us far too closely on the left. We later learned that it was a cabinet minister’s plane.
I covered many flood stories in the next few weeks, mostly doing my own camera work. Looking back now, I can understand how the ego boosting lead stories on national television had played with my head. But back then, I had visions of not only a great career as a news anchor, but also a brilliant young filmmaker.
My big opportunity came when I was sent to do a story about a flooded farm near Reddersburg. I remember how I waded barefoot through water that came up to my hips. For dramatic effect I constantly kept the camera rolling. I even managed to film myself crawling up a drenched staircase inside the house. This was Oscar stuff! I rushed back to the office and got the material away before the deadline.
Long story short: My magnum opus, the ingenious mini-documentary that should have kept Spielberg awake, was never broadcast. The only feedback I got was a short note from the senior editor in Johannesburg: “What the f*ck!”
That’s what they call Cutting Down To Size.