I broke millions of fresh stories as a journalist in my time. But there were a lot of stories that I failed to publish for various reasons. One such story that I did not publish involved former Mamelodi Sundowns Malawian striker Lovemore “Rambo” Chafunya – may his soul rest in peace.
There was a lot of competition in them days. Like bloodhounds, we members of the fourth estate went sniffing in every remote corner to break new stories. In fact, it is safe to say there was a certain competition or an unwritten law among us scribes to see who would come up with a “scoop!”
You then kind of got elevated to the exclusive boys club and earned the respect of your peers if you broke a story that goes on to dominate national headlines and at times goes on to attract the attention of international media houses.
I had a fair share of such exclusive stories. But I failed to break the Chafunya story. Not that I regret my decision. I stumbled across the Chafunya story quite by chance and it was a “hot” story during the week leading up to the then BP Top Eight final in 1987, I guess.
Sundowns were under the chairmanship of “Mauser” or Zola Mahobe and had reached the final of the top eight against Arcadia Shepherds. But they faced a serious problem. Chafunya had been served with a deportation order because his work permit had expired!
I was born and grew up in Pretoria and so, I raced to Eersterus township East of Pretoria where he was staying and bumped into the crestfallen Malawian striker.
He did not deny that he was facing deportation but at the same time desperately wanted to play in the final on Saturday. He had however, reached a temporary compromise with the Department of Home Affairs.
They had given him a reprieve until Thursday. And so the Sundowns management was working behind the scenes round the clock to renew his papers. Rambo Chafunya implored me not to write the story, and I thought he must have been smoking his socks!
To suppress such a hot story would be insane. I informed him that he was asking me to do the impossible. I explained to him that due to the cup final on Saturday, this was the biggest story, which I could unfortunately not spike. But you see, sometimes it is not just about being first to break the story.
Sometimes it is also about building relationships. Chafunya pointed out to me that I could go ahead and print the story. But once it was in the national papers, it might put undue pressure on the Department of Home Affairs and make negotiations with Sundowns very difficult to keep under wraps.
He was literally pleading with me not write the story. I battled with my conscious and the opportunity of breaking a “scoop!” I know Kaizer Ngwenya, Don Makatile, Jovial Rantao, Gabu Tugwana, Sello Rabothata to mention a few, will probably call me a disgrace to the fourth estate, but eventually I relented and gave him my word of honor that I will not publish the story.
He equally gave me his word that should he fail to secure his papers on time, I would be the first and only journalist to get the story. He promised to give me an exclusive interview and would even allow me to take pictures of him leaving the country at the OR Tambo International airport.
I agreed reluctantly. I debated with myself long and hard and questioned myself whether I was not making a huge mistake. I also wondered what if another publication stumbled across the story that I had in the bag but had failed to break…. after all, my job was to break stories – I was employed to break stories, wasn’t I?
That was on Monday preceding the final. I went back to the office clutching my notebook and working out the wording of the story in my head, the story that was probably never going to see the light of day.
Then on Friday morning, an excited Chafunya woke me up to break the news that he had received his documents and that he had collected his work permit the previous day and thanked me profusely for keeping the story under wraps.
He asked me what he could do for me as a sign of his gratitude. And my reply to him was that he should go out there on Saturday and show me that he certainly did not deserve to be deported.
Sundowns won the BP cup final 1-0. And you guessed it; Chafunya scored the only goal of the match. In my match report, I did not focus on the cup final itself, but concentrated on how the man who won the cup for Sundowns nearly did not play.
And in my post match review, I brought all the elements of the drama preceding the final around Chafunya and how he proved his worth to the team by rewarding them with scoring the goal that won them the cup, yet also pointed out that he nearly did not play.
Chafunya became not just a personal friend for life. But that small gesture alone was to form an unbreakable bond between us, to such an extend that up to the day that he passed on, he would literally lay down the red carpet for me whenever I visited Malawi.
Nobody knew or understood why, now you all know!