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Home Life Weekend

'Brave? I'm the biggest coward that you'll ever encounter'

Sir Trevor McDonald interviewed Nelson Mandela on his release from jail... now he's gone back to South Africa, says Georgia Humphreys

Not many people can say they've witnessed history in the making, but Sir Trevor McDonald most certainly can. The news veteran conducted the first interview with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison back in 1990 and, yes, he felt the pressure of such an important task.

"I'm a bore about preparing for interviews," says the Trinidad and Tobago-born-journalist, who got his big break presenting the ITN early-evening news in 1989.

"I live and sleep them, dream about them. But (with Mandela), the difficulty was, you are talking to a man nobody has seen for 26 years."

To mark what would have been the leader's 100th birthday, Sir Trevor (78) has returned to South Africa for a new ITV documentary exploring the social changes the nation has gone through.

We see him travel to the area known by some as 'the murder capital of the world', Pollsmoor Prison, where Mandela was held for six years, the verdant winelands of Franschhoek and various inner-city enclaves.

It was a profoundly personal journey for the former newsreader, who is as calm, thoughtful and captivating in real life as you'd expect).

"I was always shocked by the depth of South African poverty, the poverty of black South Africans and the appalling life of the township people," says the father-of-three, who lives with his wife, Josephine, in London.

"It is silly to have expected a dramatic change to that, because economic factors just wouldn't allow that in such a short time. I was still shocked to see people still grabbing through garbage."

One place he finds to be remarkably different in the eye-opening, one-off film is the famous township of Soweto, where real estate agent Matseleng Mogodi tells him she now sells luxury houses to the new black middle-class.

He also meets white families who, once protected by the economics of Apartheid, are now struggling to get by in a squatter camp in Munsieville.

"When I first heard about it (the squatter camp), I wondered if they were trying to be just separate again," Sir Trevor says, his words softly spoken.

"In fact, their reason seems genuinely to have been to get away from the crime-ridden urban areas."

Since retiring from News At Ten in 2008, the presenter has continued to travel the world for a number of successful documentaries, such as Death Row 2018 with Trevor McDonald.

Would he say he remains fearless when it comes to his work?

"Fearless?" he asks, wide-eyed. "I am the biggest coward you will ever encounter.

"You should have seen me whenever some people fired AK-47s - I used to run the other way.

"But I like not only the travel, I love the experience. Somebody says, 'No matter how much you read, nothing prepares you for actually being there', so, it is really nice to be there.

"I love that life, I have always liked it. I complain like hell but...," he trails off, letting out a gentle laugh. There is one interview Sir Trevor found particularly nerve-racking during his formidable career, which has spanned over 50 years.

"I was quite exercised about meeting Saddam Hussein," he admits. "They didn't make it easy for us. They gave us a good run-around, so some of the events I would not do again."

Something that's undeniable when interviewing the amiable Sir Trevor is just how great a storyteller he is.

When discussing Hussein, he recalls a crazy coincidence that took place after a dinner in London recently.

"I was going to the Tube and this big, burly guy tapped me on the shoulder, and says, 'You don't remember me, do you?' I said, 'To be very honest, I have drank too much today and, in any case, I am getting older, my brain is going'.

"I thought it was a humorous thing to say - he didn't smile at all. He said to me, 'I was one of your interpreters when you saw Saddam Hussein'."

It goes without saying the role of a journalist has changed hugely, even just in the decade since Sir Trevor left News At Ten behind.

Asked whether he would go back and do his career all over again in today's world, he answers carefully.

"I have always thought interviewing is a great, great, great skill. You interview somebody on the presupposition that he has something to say - then, for God's sake, let him say it."

Trevor McDonald: Return To South Africa, ITV, Tuesday, 9pm

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