As a political analyst, Mpumelelo Mkhabela has a firm understanding of complex matters influencing the future of South Africa. His big advantage, though, is that he is a former newspaper editor and qualified journalist.
What does your job involve?
I am the senior political journalist responsible for the Sunday Times parliamentary coverage.
Why did you choose this profession?
When I was younger, I liked reading anything I could get my hands on. As I grew up, I began to enjoy debates on political, social and economic issues. It was always my dream to report and analyse issues that affect people on a daily basis and I couldn’t imagine a better platform than journalism.
What training did you undergo?
Bachelor of Arts (with majors in English, Politics and Geography); BA Honours (Political Science); Bachelor of Journalism (Honours); and a BA Honours (International Politics).
Is there a type of personality best suited to this job?
You have to be very inquisitive, have the ability to withstand criticism (a thick skin) and most importantly, you mustn’t be a clock-watcher.
How does experience weigh up with formal training?
Formal training is very important, I don’t think I would have made it to this level without it. But training need not be the same as mine. Many journalists have trained in various other fields before they trained in journalism, some trained as journalists immediately after grade 12. Once you get started you learn every day, thus, experience is also crucial.
Describe a typical day on the job.
A normal day begins at my house… while having breakfast, I tune into a radio news programme. On arrival at the office, I read the morning newspapers and browse local and international news websites. By then I have a good idea of what is going on and proceed to make phone calls, or attend meetings with news sources. When Parliament is in session, I normally scan the parliamentary programme for the day: it indicates what is under discussion in Parliament’s committees, and in the parliamentary chambers, the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.
I then decide on the most important parliamentary activity to follow. On average, I attend no less than five meetings a day. When a matter under discussion requires no further research, I will immediately write and publish it on The Times website or file it for publication in The Times the following morning. If a story requires further investigation, I will gather more information on the subject. On really hectic days, I usually forget to have lunch (a bad habit). I’m supposed to knock off at 5pm, but I can’t recall the last time I left before 6pm.
What aspect do you enjoy the most?
I get to know a lot about what is going on in the world because I interact with political decision-makers on a daily basis. I know more than I ever write about. The more you grow, the more influential you become. Journalists are the most influential people in the world – alongside government officials and judges.
What’s been the highlight of your career?
Every time my name appears in the newspaper makes for a career highlight because each time I write, I keep a number of people informed about political developments. I inform the public about, among other things, government’s ability – or lack thereof – to deliver on its promises to the people after an election.
Any advice for young people starting out as journalists?
Don’t expect to be a millionaire. If you work hard, you will live reasonably well, but you certainly will not be rich. You have to love the job. Journalism is also addictive if you really have passion for it. Be ready to make as many enemies as you will friends: not everyone in government, opposition parties, civil society groups and among the ordinary members of the public will appreciate your harsh and honest pen.
Can you describe your job in just three words?
Fascinating, knowledge-intensive and challenging.