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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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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