Tim Modise with City Press Editor Ferial Haffajee – “I’m a critical patriot”

In the following interview with Tim Modise, Ferial Haffajee says that she is a beneficiary of BEE and Employment equity laws of the country, and therefore regards herself as a praise singer of transformation. She argues that the economic marginalisation of the youth is the big issue South Africa must confront head on and shares her views on the difficult relationship between government and the media. 

Ferial Haffajee, the Editor-in-Chief of City Press is with me here on our Transformation slot. Ferial, it’s good to see you again and catch up with you.

It’s fantastic to see you Tim, and nice to see you in your new suit.

I haven’t told this story as often as I think I should have. I’ve probably told it once and I’ve never repeated it so let me use the opportunity. The first time I worked with you was in 1994, the Nelson Mandela/FW de Klerk debate.

Indeed. You were like the guru of that debate and I was the young newbie who was brought in to be part of that very historic panel.

It was very interesting and I was quaking in my pants. I can tell you that.

It didn’t look as though you were.

I did not look like that but I definitely was scared.

We were with John Simpson and Freek Robinson.

Freek was moderating the debate at the time. We had quite an experience.

It was an absolute highlight and an honour.

At the time, I didn’t think that you, as great a journalist as you were, would end up being one of the foremost journalists in the country. Now you’re the editor of one of the biggest newspapers in the country.

There was never anything else in my life besides being a journalist and to stay in the field of journalism. I was never attracted out of it. I’ve been here amongst the longest. I can’t quite believe that.

Do you regard your rise to the top within the media as an example of empowerment and the transformation within the media?

Absolutely. I think that if it hadn’t been for black empowerment policies and employment equity policies, there’s no way that I would have been able to achieve my dreams to have done the things that I’ve been able to do. I’m a very big advocate and a praise-singer for BEE as well as for employment equity because I’ve personally seen the changes that it can make in your life.

Many people say those types of policies are holding the economy back – holding the country back – and that is why we’re not achieving the kinds of economic growth that we should be having, and the growth that would help create employment.

It’s patently untrue and I find it one of the saddest narratives in our country today, that those of us who are beneficiaries are pushed into positions of silence or defensiveness. Since I do a lot of public speaking in my role as editor of City Press, I’ll often ask a room of mixed South African crowds, “Who of you are beneficiaries of employment equity and BEE?” Almost nobody will put up their hands when in fact most of us who are black and female are beneficiaries of those policies. A very right wing narrative in South Africa has pushed us into a defensive position when in fact we should say, “Hey, I’m here. I’m proud and I show that the policy does work”.

Do you think that if we did not have those employment equity policies such as BEE that you would not have risen to the top?

I think that if we hadn’t had employment equity policies, I might possibly have been a banking clerk because that’s what young coloured women were meant to become. Alternatively, I would have been retrenched and in the dog box, because the other option for people like me was to be a clothing worker and we know what’s happened to the clothing industry. Apartheid set very clear destinies for you as well as for me, and if it hadn’t been for policies to fix those, I don’t think that either of us would have been where we are.

Beyond this being a profession for you and you playing a key role in the media, you’re actually at the centre of determining what we get to see, read, and pay attention to. How do you feel about that?

I just want to take a step back before answering that to say again, that on employment equity and BEE, I don’t think people realise the macroeconomic impacts of those policies. The golden era of post-Apartheid economy was from 2007 to 2009 – a little bit of give and take on both sides. If you do the math, that was when the black middle class really began to make itself felt and where you saw the economy – not quite booming, but going through its best period. If you track back, you’ll see that those policies have meant good things. I.e. a rising ship of prosperity for all of us. Yes, it is an honour to be able to make news choices that have influence but I think the story of the media today is that each of us, as we’re sitting here in Biznews today, it’s been so democratised that the agenda-setting role doesn’t really belong to the mass media or the former media any longer. That’s why we’re part of such an exciting revolution.

The political elite and many politicians in government are of the view that that influence is concentrated in few media houses. Therefore, the argument they make is that the media itself has not transformed and has a conservative, right wing reactionary type of agenda.

With respect, that’s absolutely not true. The media picture that the communications Minister Faith Muthambi or her Deputy, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams paint is of a highly concentrated media that holds the right wing agenda and unleashes it on society. It’s simply not true. Vukuzenzele, the newspaper of the Government circulates 20-million companies. None of us in any industry is even printing that number any longer, so that’s a very powerful mechanism. The Vukuzenzele is a 20-million copy circulator. Public media is concentrated in the SABC and that’s currently very much (I know both of us come from there) Government media. Those are massive influences. In fact, the story of the mass media where I work is a story of disruption and a story of decline. Where you work (Biznews.com) and Power FM – those are the new edges – the exciting parts. I think there’s been far more diversity, black ownership, and public ownership than our media or our ministers care to acknowledge.

You mentioned something about the SABC. Are you suggesting that it’s a Government media? It’s supposed to be a public broadcaster.

When I went to work there in 1993, it was a great summer of opportunity for public broadcasting where we tried to experiment with something that would be generally public-owned, free of commercial imperatives and the profit motive that can restrict you quite a lot. In those 21 years, it’s gone right back to being what it used to be under Apartheid, which is the amplifier of a Government message.

The Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi says that Government should set up its own media house, given the assets it has. You mentioned Vukuzenzele as a publication. What do you think of that?

Government’s been speaking about this for so long that it should just go ahead and do it. In fact, it already owns the biggest media house in the country (SABC). The Minister has changed the articles of association of the SABC to give herself far more power, so I think it’s fair to say it’s Government-owned. The GCIS for Government communication service is massive, has more journalists than probably all the big newsrooms in the country put together and thirdly, all the Government media – printed and online – gives you such a huge sector that in fact, the Government does own a massive communications hub. If it wants to start a black-owned company, I would be very keen to see how that’s going to be funded and what it’s going to look like.

Obviously, that’s informed by the view that the generally, the media in the country is not patriotic. It has been said a few times.

I consider myself enormously patriotic about my country. I consider myself a critical patriot and I think when the Government does good things, there’s ample evidence. We’ve studied it at City Press. I’ve studied it for Power FM and anywhere else. Generally, our media is onside the national imperative. Often, what Government’s talking about when it says “you’re unpatriotic” is that we do things like uncover the spending on Nkandla, uncover the massive coming apart of our key crime fighting institutions – be it the Hawks or the Scorpions, etcetera – that are so severely compromised that they can’t do the work of keeping you and I safe as citizens.

You, as an Editor, have had your own personal experiences where you had to make difficult choices – putting pressure on you when you think of the criticism that’s going to be levelled your way. Are there any particular incidents that come to mind, that you think about – that were the most difficult for you?

It tends to happen all the time. I think the toughest so far has spanned the course from religion to corruption and that would be when I decided at the Mail & Guardian to run one of the images of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons made by a Danish cartoonist, to show the world what was causing such big ructions everywhere, from Pakistan to Copenhagen. That choice really caused a lot of trouble for me in South Africa. On the other end is our coverage at City Press and the Mail & Guardian on the spending of R256m on the President’s home at Nkandla. That has come with almost unending pressure and those are tough choices to make. As you know, the media is in a time of enormous disruption, declining revenues, and smaller newsrooms so we have to make choices, understanding the context in which you work.

Over the period of time that you’ve been in the media, you’ve had an opportunity to observe how South Africa works. The early days of democracy were exciting times. When you compare what happened then to now, what is the difference between these eras – moving from one to the other?

I think back when I started with you, it was halcyon days because the story was easily told. There were bad guys and there were good guys. There was black and there was white. The story was rather binary and simple. I think that in the making of a new country, things become entirely more complex and exciting. Twenty-one years on, when a country is between those ages of going from a teen to becoming an adult, that comes with enormous growing pains. I think those growing pains are difficult to report.

To your mind, what you do you regard as the main issue facing the nation at this time?

It’s undoubtedly a story I reported here, outside the JSE where we’re sitting. It’s when Julius Malema – still wearing a different beret – started that wonderful march from here to Pretoria. It was a march about young people and their role in the economy. If three million young people can’t get a role in our economy…if to them, this wold that’s symbolised by the JSE doesn’t work, for me that would be our biggest challenge.

What does the future look like, given not only that challenge but also a number of things that you, as City Press’ Editor have to decide on, on a weekly basis? What does it tell you about the future?

I don’t think we’re a sinking ship by any means. I think we are not like Greece or any collapsing economies where you are in a state of emergency. We’re an open society with fantastic freedom and lovely debates. If we take a couple of brave decisions now, we can really make our country fly but I feel that for the past five years, we’ve been stuck in neutral – unable to even get into first gear.

One of the things that we use (from the Constitution, anyway) to define ourselves as South African is that we say we want to be a non-sexist, non-racist, democratic country. I suppose that when it comes to the democratic side of things, at least now and again we do what’s supposed to happen. As a woman, you’ve gone to the top of the game and you can go beyond obviously, and become a publisher.

I don’t want to.

Do you think that confirms that indeed, we are becoming non-sexist? What’s your comment in that regard? Regarding non-racism: where are we?

On race, I think we are so rubbish. We have totally failed to take the baton from Madiba and make ourselves into a nation. We need leadership on race because not a week goes by, where we’re not fighting about Verwoerd and Jan van Riebeeck, and at each other’s throats. Surely, there must be a better way of doing this. Maybe the real debate is how you get out of it and do something better. On gender, numbers are show we’re up amongst one-third of countries in the world. We’re good. The JSE is led by a woman.  It’s chaired by a woman. The Reserve Bank, until recently, was led by Gil Marcus. We don’t have a Woman’s Movement but to keep that momentum going is something, which is a gift to young women like your daughter, for example.

Today is Africa Day. Given the complexity or the difficulties of defining ourselves – the character of our nation – not so long ago, Archbishop said, “We are a rainbow nation.  We are children of God”. We are still battling with that. What is our place in this Africa Day celebration, given that we’re battling with our own identity here in South Africa?

It was lovely to watch the celebrations yesterday and to see every single university having something today (for the rest of this week).  I think that the xenophobic attacks were an indicator of how we used to think we’re a big dog on our continent.  We’re not any longer.  We must take our place in this community of nations and I don’t think that we have really, grasped the public education needs around dealing with our xenophobic instincts.  Geography is our friend.  Being where we are on our continent is a good story. Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique are the real, new spots on the globe that people are taking account of – beyond bricks.

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