Marawa strikes back
Johannesburg - All Robert Marawa wants to talk about is his new radio show.
After turning down countless offers from rival stations, the country’s most celebrated sportscaster will be back at the SABC, his former home for more than 20 years.
“Amendments are to be made, but there is a signed contract. The show goes ahead on the first of August,” he says during our two-hour interview, casually dressed in jeans, sneaks and a track top, his cellphone vibrating incessantly throughout.
Despite time off due to ill health (he’s had two heart attacks in 10 years), Marawa (45) has remained TV’s face of football at SuperSport on DStv, but has spent a year off the radio after being “chucked out for absolutely no reason”. This was after, he believes, he was targeted by a senior SABC manager who has since been fired for corruption. His producer was suspended for playing an interview clip from a rival broadcaster, and he stood by her side in solidarity.
The upside of a year off has meant he could spend more time with the love of his life, his seven-year-old son Awande.
Five presenters have tried to fill his shoes at Metro FM, but none has achieved even a quarter of the numbers Marawa was pulling, let alone the millions a month in sponsorships he attracts. Cellular giant MTN was believed to be paying the SABC a cool R1 million a month to be a part of Marawa’s magic.
Whether it’s a rival sportscaster out to tarnish his name by leaking information to the tabloids or the undue influence of sports bosses who don’t like his relentless probing, Marawa is not bowing to pressure, despite receiving threats on his life during this month’s World Cup.
He says he wasn’t worried about walking away from the SABC, which lured him from his Wits law studies in 1996 to become one of the first members of the pack of Simunye presenters who exploded into post-democracy popular culture.
“I left with my integrity intact. I’ve always said I’d rather starve in dignity than eat in shame, and that is the one thing that I live by,” he says.
The R5.5 million deal
“I’m not even in the top five best-paid sportscasters in the building,” Marawa says of the alleged R5.5 million, three-year contract the SABC has offered him. It works out to about R150 000 a month before 45% tax, and is for presenting a 6pm to 8pm show on Radio 2000 every night of the week, with the first hour simulcast on Metro FM. That’s R7 000 a show.
Some have labelled it “exorbitant” and a scandal, as have unions within the SABC.
But a cursory City Press investigation reveals at least three SABC sportscasters are earning more – one earns R7 535 per hour-long show – and popular hosts on private stations are earning much more. One established SABC sports host is believed to be earning R200 000 a month
One can’t blame Marawa for wondering what all the fuss is about – he doesn’t even get a share of the sponsorships he attracts.
Along with this came claims that internal charges were laid against new SABC chief operating officer Chris Maroleng and acting sports boss Marcia Mahlalela for Marawa’s “irregular” deal, leading to Mahlalela’s resignation. However, impeccable sources say no charges have yet been laid, just an internal report has been compiled. Mahlalela, they say, resigned to take up a new job elsewhere.
Maroleng was also accused of not disclosing his friendship with Marawa. But Marawa shows text messages he sent to friends trying to get Maroleng’s phone number after the SABC boss let it be known he was trying to reach him.
“If we were friends, you’d think I’d have his number,” Marawa says.
So why is he returning to the SABC?
“I received gazillions of offers from other stations, more lucrative ones, even. My reason for not going there was if it’s not on a national platform and reachable to everyone, then I’m not interested,” he says.
What’s really exciting Marawa about his new show is the spectacular footprint of Radio 2000.
“I can get in my car and drive to Durban and never lose signal. Radio 2000 is ever-present, you can get it even in Swaziland or Botswana – it spills over the borders.”
For Marawa, the SABC is the only place where he can reach his army of fans, many of whom are new converts to sports radio because of his no-nonsense questions, his ability to break big stories nightly and his emphasis on honouring sports legends while they are still alive.
“So many listeners are rural. They’re not even on Twitter, they can’t pay for data for online stations or listening on the internet. When the SABC raised the Radio 2000 plan, it just made sense.”
Marawa is also excited about returning to Metro FM because it’s where his radio career began.
“When you’re growing up on the farm [in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal, where his parents were shopkeepers], radio is the only thing you have access to. I grew up with a radio to my ear.”
He was, he says, painfully shy: “If I spoke one sentence in a day, it was a lot.”
But in secret, he used his father’s VHS recorder to film himself reading the newspaper in a mock news broadcast.
A farm school, Woza Woza Primary (“where on a Friday, the girls bring the water and we bring cow dung and you do the school floors”), was followed by an unhappy time at Little Flower, a Roman Catholic school run by German nuns. He wasn’t much happier at Hilton College, where he was one of a handful of black pupils at a school that didn’t offer football as a school sport.
Despite a scholarship to study in the UK, he decided to abandon Wits to work at the SABC. At 25, he was thrown into the deep end, and hosted World Cup and Olympics coverage with legends like Martin Locke.
But it was Romeo Kumalo, then Metro station manager, who made Marawa’s dreams come true.
“He gave me a call, said they’d been watching me on TV and he wanted me to replicate that on radio,” and Marawa was offered a 30-minute slot.
The rest is history and, in a sense, Marawa will be returning home next month, with or without the blessing of his haters, but much to the joy of his fans.
Robert Marawa Newsmaker by Charl Blignaut.