South Africa: Ferial Haffajee: South Africa's First Woman Newspaper Editor

26 January 2004

Johannesburg — She has a fine mind and a brilliant, dimpled smile. And now, Ferial Haffajee really has something to smile about. The 36 year old journalist has been appointed the new editor of South Africa's weekly Mail and Guardian - making her the first female editor of a major newspaper in her country.

The M&G, as it is known in the industry, is an investigative, campaigning newspaper, born during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in 1985. It appears on the newsstands in South Africa every Friday.

Haffajee has come full circle, starting at the M&G as a journalist trainee in 1991. She takes up her new job as editor on 1 February. Her appointment comes in an important year for South Africa, which is celebrating its 10th democratic anniversary and preparing for the country's third non-racial elections. In Johannesburg, Ferial Haffajee outlined her plans and ambitions for the Mail and Guardian in conversation with AllAfrica's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

Congratulations Ferial Haffajee, tell us how you first became associated with the Mail and Guardian?

I watched it with starry eyes from 1985, when Anton Harber, the founding editor - then 27 years old - would come to Wits University, where I was studying, and talk about this amazing paper, which all of us read, because it was the only one providing news that we could relate to. And I thought, "Oh it would be lovely to work there one day".

Next year the Mail and Guardian will be 20 years old. It was started in 1985 when the Rand Daily Mail closed down, because it was becoming too vociferously anti-apartheid and its owners were not comfortable with that, so they closed the paper down.

Its journalists then pooled their retrenchment savings to start a brave, young newspaper. They got all their friends to put in money to bring it out and then they would do the most delightful prescription drives. I remember friends of mine used to go around delivering the paper on a Friday morning.

So when did the dream become a reality for you?

My mother really wanted me to be a lawyer, like all mums do I guess. I studied law for about two years and was not very good at it at all. After I finished my BA degree, I applied to what was then the Weekly Mail to get onto their training programme. And I am very, very happy that I did do so, that was in 1991.

You belong to the Mail and Guardian family and now you have become the first woman editor of this newspaper and the first woman editor of a leading newspaper in South African history -

Most wonderful. I couldn't believe it Thursday when I heard that news. I didn't really see it as an historic event. For me personally, it was a complete dream come true, because whenever I've written down my goals - and I have done that - I said I would love to be the M&G's editor one day.

I thought that working in its senior team was as far as I would get, so being able to be its editor is absolutely the pinnacle for me.

So would you say this something you have been working towards all your professional life as a journalist?

Definitely. I have turned down other things and I thought that when I became the M&G's opinion page editor and a senior writer, I was happy with that and happy to be in the senior team. I thought I'd grow old in that position. To now be editor, like I said, is just wonderful. It's more than I had hoped for.

And, of course, for women and women journalists in South Africa, this is a first; Ferial Haffajee a black woman editor of a major newspaper and it all comes in the year of the tenth anniversary of independence, liberation, freedom, democracy -

All of that I suppose. It comes in a momentous year. It comes at a difficult time for the media, so I'm very grateful and excited that my appointment has been so roundly celebrated. I've learned from some wonderful women, like Caroline Southey at the Financial Mail, which is where I worked just before. It's a sister of the Financial Times in London, half owned by the FT. I learned from Caroline, I learned economics, business and how to lead as a woman, because I think there are some special skills involved.

So certainly it's most wonderful. The M&G is now recognised as a major, national newspaper. In 1985, it was called alternative, now it's become mainstream. So it is a major feather in my cap.

South Africa is celebrating you, the first woman and the first black woman to head a major newspaper. But have there been petty jealousies, and might there be those who are stabbing you in the back?

In my first week since I found out I'd been appointed editor, I've been completely overwhelmed by the levels of love, solidarity, friendship and good wishes. I don't doubt that this is a difficult industry and that this might occur. I haven't heard any of it. And I just feel completely surrounded by support and love. If I feel anything, it's that an enormous responsibility rests on our shoulders now.

What difference does a woman editor make, if anything, to a newspaper? What do you bring to the Mail and Guardian that's different?

I have been asked it a lot and I don't want my answer to come off glibly, because that's not how it's meant. I think editors have a certain universal set of skills. You've got to be a good journalist; you've got to be decisive, creative, etc. I think I've got those qualities.

But as a female editor, in South Africa, I will bring a different touch to the M&G. I will want to use our investigative resources to look at some pretty serious gender problems we have - like the rate of rape and the rate of sexual violence.

And I hope that we will be able to profile the many young, black or coloured women who are coming up through the ranks, be able to show a different form of leadership in the way that I represent, I think, a different shape of leadership.

When you look at South Africa, it is by all accounts - not only just here in Africa - a country that champions women. When we look at the South African parliament and the number of women MPs in the national assembly, when you look at the government there are not just token women ministers, but impressive women ministers making a difference -

I do not think that I would have been able to get this job, be appointed to it and be seen as fit to get it if it wasn't for where the country is. So, in many senses, I am a fruit of South Africa's ten years of democracy, because I think what the African National Congress has been very successful at doing is to put women into very senior positions. It is the only party with a very firm quota for women's representation - amongst the highest on the continent as you say. And our cabinet is about 40 percent women.

I think after the next elections, what you will see is a very concerted effort to take women who are now deputy ministers into ministerial positions. I'm not going to put money on it, but I think we may even have a female deputy president.

And, eventually, a woman as president of South Africa?

I have no doubt in my mind, whether it's going to be Winnie Madikizela Mandela or Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma we don't know. But I think we definitely will in the future.

You're an all-round journalist, Ferial Haffajee. You've dabbled in all sorts. I'm told print is your first love, but your experience is much wider. You've worked in other parts of the media, haven't you?

I worked in radio and in television. In radio I was told I had a squeaky little voice, so I'm not an Ofeibea! But I loved it, because of its speed and it taught me an appreciation for how people speak and to be honest to what they say and to capture how they say it, so that was great.

TV I didn't enjoy, because it's such a fleeting - powerful I know - but an extremely fleeting medium. What it did give me is a sense of is pictures and how things look and I hope to import some of those skills into print.

What are the downsides to being a woman editor? What are the pitfalls that you will have to watch out for?

Personally, people have been concerned that I'm quite quiet and soft. So I would have to learn to be decisive and occasionally take unpopular decisions. I think that in our country while there is that focus on women's leadership, it remains pretty patriarchal and I have no doubt that there are the glass ceilings we are going to have to break through.

The Mail and Guardian has a history of women's leadership and its ethos, its gender, its principles are very non-sexist. Its readership is largely female. So I think those make it easier for me than perhaps other women in the media.

What do you feel are your weaknesses; apart from being 'quiet' - which is surely sometimes a good thing, because quiet people often listen harder than those of us with the louder voices?

I like to be liked and that's not always going to be the case, because it's a feisty, independent paper. It often gets on the wrong side of government - which is a good thing. And I'm going to have to be quite tough about that. Coming to the paper with a history as it is - it was pretty close to the African National Congress and many people in the ANC felt a little betrayed by the paper when it continued on this feisty, independent path. Many felt that it had gone wrong some how. Many questioned why I decided to return to it and now to become its editor.

Those are going to take some tough decisions, necessary ones, but tough ones.

It's also a newspaper which campaigns against corruption, people feel sometimes to the exclusion of other things. But when I've had the opportunity to travel in other African countries - notably last year in Nigeria and Kenya - they don't have our self-consciousness about covering corruption, because they see it as protecting democracy. I think that's still an understanding that needs to be achieved in South Africa.

And I'm talking about corruption in both the public and the private sector. And I loved looking at those newspapers and seeing how completely Kenyan and Nigerian they were about protecting their countries and their democracies and seeing a key function to keep their public sectors filled with integrity and with the values with which we put our leaders into power.

Do you think you're going to be tough enough? It's a tough business -

It's a very tough business. I think I'm going have to learn to be tough enough.

As a role model, which you have been for the past 15 years in journalism, your influence is now likely to grow as you become the country's first woman editor of a national newspaper. Is that an albatross or is this something that you carry with pride? And how can you help other fledgling female journalists to build up their reputations and become the new Ferial Haffajees of South Africa?

Role model is a word I've heard quite often this week. It scares me a little, but it also fills me with pride that I should be seen as this, because I have had role models and I know what they've done for me. So if I'm going to be that, then I take it on with great pride and I hope I succeed at it. I've always thought of myself as a 'sister,' as one of the girls, as a fellow 'hack,' this is a new one!

Now your mother wanted you to be a lawyer, you say, you turned out as a journalist. How does she feel now that her daughter is the first woman editor of a leading newspaper in South Africa?

I, of course, told her about applying for it. She was worried about her baby, because I'm her baby, having the shoulders for it. Now it's happened, I think she is extremely proud because lots of people are calling and saying congratulations. I think she is very happy and very proud.

Everybody listens to her/his mother, or should do, does your mother read the Mail and Guardian? I suppose she does?

She definitely does. It's an expensive paper, so sometimes they buy it and sometimes I take it home. I think editor's prerogative is that I'll make sure they get a copy every Friday.

But what does she say about the newspaper? Your readership, you noted, is a younger readership. Your mother obviously belongs to an older generation. And, of course, there are criticisms about the paper.

One week we had a poster which read "Why men love porn," which is a typically M&G poster. This week's is "The ins and out of conference sex". She worries about those. "Ooh," she says, "that looks awful". But she still reads it. I think what appeals to her are those longer pieces which help people understand the nation and the country. Its investigative edge really appeals to her enormously. So I think she makes an accommodation with it and now she'll begin to love it, I hope.

So she won't find it too racy?

I'm sure she does!

It's common knowledge in the media industry here in South Africa that your deputy at the Mail and Guardian is also your partner. So that mixes your professional and your private life. Do you separate the two and, if so, how? How will this work, because usually it's the other way round, if anything?

My partner, who's Paul Stober - one of two deputy editors at the Mail and Guardian with Drew Forrest - has been ragged a great deal in the past week that his wife is going to be his boss! We thought carefully about my applying. We thought carefully about what it would mean for our home life.

I'm not too worried about our professional life, because we met as trainees at the Mail and Guardian, so we have a good history of working together. We have decided on some rules. Whether we stick to them I'm not sure. We are not supposed to discuss the Mail and Guardian at home.

How will you manage that since you both work for the same paper?

By biting your tongue a lot I suppose! It is a little romantic, I think, to think that we won't at all, but it's a rule, and I hope we keep to some of it at least. It's also really important that staff do not feel as if decisions are made at home. It's vital to keep that sense of newsroom democracy.

What are your other priorities?

What I'd like to do is expand our coverage of the rest of the continent. This year is a particularly challenging one. Six elections in southern Africa - very much a consolidation of democracy stuff. But not only election stories [but also] economic stories, business stories. It's an exciting continent to be on. It's expensive to cover, especially from South Africa. It's going to be a challenge, but one we hope to meet.

One thing that stands out in the Mail and Guardian of old was its features and double-page feature spreads, which allowed journalists the space to really report in depth.

Two years ago, the Mail and Guardian was bought by a Zimbabwean media entrepreneur called Trevor Ncube. He has turned the paper around. It's almost profitable. What that means is that we've got more resources to go back and do those kinds of stories; you know those beautiful two-page long features with huge photo spreads. I'm really looking forward to that, because that's my great love and passion.

But can the Mail and Guardian afford that? Is that the sort of journalism you're hoping to bring back or that you're going to insist comes back into the paper, because of course it's expensive?

I'm going to insist. I'm inspired by the Indian writer called PJ Sainath who started writing a series in The Times of India, from its poorest districts, called "Everybody loves a Good Drought," based on one of the first essays.

I think that's the kind of journalism we should be doing in South Africa and in southern Africa, turning development into stories that are not worthy, but are fascinating, investigative - that are stories of ordinary people doing amazing things. That is something I'm going to insist on and get tough about!

The media industry in South Africa - especially the newspapers - is, I wouldn't say volatile, but staff turnaround is rapid. Journalists always seem to be changing jobs and editors moving on. Usually it's the other way round. Editors stay on forever and younger reporters lament that they don't have the opportunity to move up the ladder. In South Africa, you go away for a couple of months, you come back and there has been a complete shift. Is there stability?

Since 1994, what's happened is that a lot of our great talents, great minds, and great intellects have gone into government. Before, remember, that was never an option. It was an illegitimate state, and you never could do that. Many people made the choice and that's completely legitimate. Many people are going into government and into public relations and the corporate sector, because that is big bucks. Whether we are unusual in that, I'm not sure. You have seen a lot of it.

The past year has been a particularly turbulent one, because you saw a number of allegations of plagiarism. We had a journalist who broke perhaps the biggest story of the year, but with what degree of integrity I think many of us are still questioning. And that's the story of whether our key national prosecutor, Bulelani Ngcuka, was an apartheid spy.

It caused quite a kafuffle here, but what it did in the media is make us really think about our ethics. And I think that's what gives it the sense of being very turbulent at the moment. For me I really think we need to sharpen our ethics, sharpen how we do our jobs.

Is there too much loose journalism going on here in South Africa?

I look at the case of a South African judge who was accused of rape in Mumbai of a fellow South African woman.

In India -

I see that the woman who laid the charge has dropped it. The way the media in South Africa covered it was in a way that took sides all the time, which presented things as extremely black or white. The free-to-air broadcaster, etv, chose not to name the woman and not to name the judge. I think with the benefit of hindsight they did the correct thing. Their position was principled and it showed integrity.

Because you do have people here in South Africa saying that there has already been a trial by media of this case before the real case got anywhere near a court in India. But of course, the woman and her husband went on national and regional radio here in South Africa to break the story, which was pretty unusual.

That they did. But I saw a very interesting comment which suggested that maybe the radio station had a certain duty not to (put them on air). And maybe I'm romantic to think that they should have thought more carefully about that. What I hope is that we don't follow, perhaps, the British model of an irresponsible tabloid press, where there is a race to the bottom.

I'm not saying we should have a namby-pamby, extremely careful media, because that will certainly see the death of print in our country. I do think it's a time when we as South African journalists need to think very carefully about your jobs.

So are you saying you don't want to see the gutter press enter the South African media, although some would say it already has, in a way?

The papers showing the highest growth, as I think they do around the world, are the tabloids. I think they don't need to be gutter. They serve a vital function. They are increasing our reading public.

When I went to talk to a group of schoolgirls, I thought - mistakenly - that they were all Mail and Guardian readers. They were actually Daily Sun readers and loved it. So it's bringing readers into the media and hopefully they'll stay, so they can serve a vital function. Maybe we need to talk more; maybe we need to think a little more. Maybe we need to pin our code of ethics to our computer screens.

What about younger journalists, because you came up through the ranks of the Mail and Guardian through their cadet training programme? Is that something that you will be fostering? Will that be one of your personal priorities?

Most decidedly! The M&G is blessed with about 15 young people who are terrific. They come to the Mail and Guardian not because they earn the best salaries, really they don't. They come because they get space and because their views are heard. Our editorials are very democratically decided, which is quite different.

How does that happen because, in the end, the editor carries the can and has the last word?

On a Wednesday night, at about 6.30pm, a meeting is called and we all come together to think what line we might push in any week. And they are wonderful meetings; young, opinionated people. They go on probably for one and a half hours, probably quite long on deadline. And what comes out is a pretty good reflection of what's discussed. I don't doubt editor's prerogative gets the upper hand, but it is an unusual meeting and I think those young people are going to be tomorrow's leaders, pretty much in the way we were.

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