Herman Eloff, lifestyle editor at News24, reveals what happens behind the scenes when royalty comes knocking.
The Cape Town leg of the Royal Sussex Tour in South Africa ended on Wednesday afternoon and although I can describe in detail every item of clothing the duke and duchess wore, every word they spoke, and even how they smelled (sweet like jasmine) I never got to be in the same room as them.
But that’s my job. I cover base camp while reporters cover the field.
It’s late in the evening on Heritage Day and outside the giant glass windows of Media24’s modern office building, it is already night time. I did not even notice the sun go down as I scurried to curate stories, selecting photos, picking footage for a video, writing and rewriting headlines, intros, blurbs and captions, adding credits and checking facts – all at a speed faster than the internet connection that seems to always find the most ill-timed moment to leave me hanging.
I get up to walk to the kitchen and the white florescent lights follow me as I move from my desk. They flicker as they switch on from power saving mode in the otherwise dark office. Somewhere on the far side of the 15th floor, the blue light of a TV screen beams an eerie light show against the wall.
My head has a numbness to it, like when you go too deep down a rabbit hole and then try to return to reality. It’s a foggy feeling that can only be described as something between floating and complete blankness. After long periods of extreme concentration and focus, you reach a zen-like calmness that’s difficult to get out of.
But coffee helps. So I brew another cup while my mind rushes through everything that’s happened over the last three days. There were rooftop meetings with the British High Commission, media and security briefings, editorial meetings, huddles, Google drives and docs, catch-ups, WhatsApp messages, more meetings, colour-coded call sheets, and what feels like perhaps a modest 100 000 e-mails.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex arrived in the Mother City on a royal tour so well-organised you’d hardly believe me if I told you.
“How did I end up here?” I genuinely ponder. A world far away from my small and tough beginnings at a humble, but fearless, community newspaper reporter in the North West where I used to cover car crashes, missing cats and on one occasion, a sunflower that grew taller than the roof of the house when the owner threw bird seed out his window and it just so happened to find the perfect spot to flourish.
Now 12 years later, I’m working on a thrilling historical event that’s unfolding in front of my eyes like a well-scripted Netflix show that’s so enticing to watch I have to binge it.
My job as editor means I’m deskbound while reporters, photographers and videographers fly in and out of home base – like honeybees zooming in and out of the hive collecting nectar and pollen and bringing it back to make the sweet stuff. Camera bags are flung over shoulders, memory cards swapped, batteries charged, timetables collected, location details updated and stories shared in yet another WhatsApp group created to keep everyone in “the loop”.
Back at my desk, the usually neat working space is scattered with printed schedules, pen scribbles all over, notebooks containing quotes, numbers of photos that make the cut and others that don’t.
It’s my job to find the story that stitches our coverage together. I have to establish the tone that will be our voice as we share everything we see, hear and learn during this rare and unique opportunity.
We sift through hours of footage and hundreds of images in the shortest imaginable time to curate an offering that represents a true and honest reflection of what happens on the tour for everyone who can’t be there.
Our cameraman rushes out to Nyanga, to a location kept under embargo until the very last minute – there he films the most beautiful footage of a joyful Meghan dancing with locals.
Back in District Six, our royal correspondent captures Harry and Meghan eating porring (pudding) and samoosas and then a magical moment when Meghan breaks away from the royal entourage to meet a young fan in the crowd. It happens quick. There’s tight security. There are screaming fans and pushy international members of the media who came far for their shots and play rough. But nothing gets us down.
We find backways, with the help of local aunties who know the shortcuts through the streets, to the oldest mosque in South Africa.
We get on unstable navy boats with cameras resting on our shoulders on the choppy waters of Kalk Bay to the get a shot of Harry looking like the dapper prince he is.
Every photo, every video, every story that comes in speaks of Harry and Meghan’s energy, friendliness, and their genuine interest in listening to others. And then there is the massive boom in tourism which is expected as the royal couple’s unforgettable trip is publicised across the globe.
A quick glance at the live numbers streaming in and it’s clear we’re doing something right as we’re having the biggest traffic day of the month and the numbers are spiking.
A check-in on Twitter, after a carefully moderated social media post with a carefully selected photo goes out, reveals the first comment: “Who cares?” I look at the numbers as they roll in – thousands at a time.
A second comment pops up: “Nobody wants to read this.” I look at the charts again. The numbers are now climbing so fast and high that I take a screenshot and save it on my phone. I want to share it with the team later because I’m so proud of them. They’ve been offering up lunch breaks, sleep and personal time because they’re committed to their jobs.
I close Twitter.
Instead I glance at the numbers again. Is all this hard work for nothing? I keep my eye on the numbers waiting for an answer.
The digits start to dance – fast, slow, then fast, faster, before they spin Too fast to keep up. I take a sip of my coffee.
(A special thanks to Bashiera Parker, Aljoscha Kohlstock, Aletta Harrison, and Jerusha Sukhdeo-Raath for all their support and hard work.)