City Press’ Ferial Haffajee: print media will be a philanthropists’ game

Our Alec Hogg has plenty of stories to recount from days gone by, now seemingly distant, but still ever so pertinent and integral to our society. Having been a young journalist working at the Star in the days of Apartheid, the world in which Biznews and its founder exist today is thankfully, a very different place. Times were tough and the road of freedom of press that we take for granted today was not yet forged. A very interesting time indeed. Ruda Landman interviewed a similar character: a hugely successful adaptor to change, City Press’ Editor Ferial Haffajee, on her experiences as a budding journalist at the end of Apartheid, her passion for literature, the interview with Mandela at the tender age of 22, and where she sees not just South African, but global, print media heading.  – CH

This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.

Hello, and welcome to the Change Exchange. And now we’re talking change to Ferial Haffajee, City Press editor and a woman who has walked and lived through some changes in this country. Welcome.

Thank you Ruda, nice to be with you.

Where did the idea come from to be a journalist? You started out studying law?

There was never anything else for me, really. People always assumed my first editing job was the Mail &Guardian – not so. I was the editor of the Green Times at my high school and I always felt journalism to be a way that you can impact on your society and impact on your world. So growing up under apartheid, it was for me the most logical thing to become.

And as a black woman in that time… 60s, 70s, as a little girl – could you see yourself as “the boss”?

No! Never, ever. I don’t think – we lived in a coloured area – I don’t think we were ever schooled to think of ourselves as “the boss”. I think your life was very much ordained to become a school teacher, or a bank clerk or a clothing worker. So really, it took understanding the struggle and aligning yourself with it to be able to paint a different dreamscape for yourself.

And did you do that?

Absolutely! I’m a Piscean, so dreaming comes pretty easily to me, and understanding that your world could change if your country changed, was the only way I think that enabled surviving through those times.

So what were your dreams? What did you see?

Well firstly I wanted to get out of Bosmont, which is where I lived. I really felt imprisoned there. It wasn’t a beautiful place. It was very concrete, not a lot that was lovely. My parents would often take us to the Zoo Lake, and getting there you would wind through beautiful places and I would think it would be so nice to live there, to have a swimming pool… Very childlike and only later did I understand that actually, it wasn’t a mistake, that my parents didn’t work hard enough – it was a system that kept us imprisoned.

You once told me a story about standing on your balcony, in Bosmont.



So my Gmail e-mail address is still a picture of me on that balcony. And because I was little, you would look out through what almost felt like prison bars. And I did often feel like – as a little one – how am I going to get out of here? And I used to watch my mom, walking down along – not even a park – it was just an open field, from the station coming home. So I keep that to remind me of where I come from, and I must never forget that.

When did you go to university? When was that?


So even then, things were very constrained. Did you go to Wits?

I went to Wits. I was among a small quota of people who got into a formerly white university – otherwise I would have had to go to UWC for coloureds, or KwaZulu Natal, Durban Westville, for Indians. And I got in there. And because we aligned ourselves with the liberation movement, we didn’t take part in anything other than student politics. We chose not to be part of the Chess Society or the Gym or Swim, because you weren’t allowed to enjoy it, you were there to learn, because there was still a struggle unfolding. It was a really exciting time to be a student. It was the last push against apartheid, 1985. Various states of emergency, so I really learned a lot then.

I’m sure. And the major change in the country, can you remember where you were when FW made his speech?

Absolutely. So I was at Wits, and he made the speech – I was working at Wits – and we watched on the TV, and we all ran onto the streets in great celebration. And Braamfontein was like an epicentre of unions and civil society organisations and loads of students, it was just a feeling of absolute elation.

Could you imagine how the country was going to change?

At that moment? No, not at all. And I think it’s been harder than we expected on that day, and also Freedom took a lot longer to come. Because also from that day, to the first elections was a good five years, and those five years reporting it was a great honour. Because you almost felt like a midwife to its birth.

Ja, I also felt that way.

Did you? It was a great time!

And then you were very young, you were 22 when you were one of the panel who did the first interview with Mandela?

Yes, I was. And I had a very funny hairstyle.

What was it like?

The interview?

No, the hairstyle.

It was a kind of chic, short, because I’ve got very unruly hair. And really I wish it had been different, because that picture follows me! But anyway, the interview… I was chosen at the SABC because they needed like a Rainbow Nation panel… John Simpson, Freek Robinson, Tim Modise and I guess they needed a chick… but then I was chosen to be a part of it. And it was sincerely a highlight. Although I would ask him very different questions now than I asked at the time.

How could one know?

How could one know, hey?

And did it forge a bond with him?

Not at all. I’m quite shy that way – I didn’t even ask for an autograph or a selfie. I didn’t even know what they were called back then! But I just covered him as any other journalist did. I was shy to get close to him as other people did, and I wish of course that I used that space differently now, hey?

Ja, but at 22, as you say, it’s hard. You started at the Weekly Mail, it was then, in 1991. Tell me about that newspaper at that time? Because also it played a very specific role.

Sure. That newspaper at that time was in Anderson street, downtown, two blocks behind the Carlton Centre – again in another heartland. That time of Numsa, of many organisations around the area, and we were the chosen paper of the liberation movement, because of the state of the rest of the media. People didn’t quite trust the SABC yet, so it was a very exciting place to be. You would have a Joe Slovo popping in, or Chris Hani popping in – Madiba even visited. And we were at the heart of the debates of what was going to be the shape of this country. Sadly, though, we spent a lot of that time covering the Third Force, Vlakplaas and the remnants of vicious, in the union movements, Inkhatagate… so it was also a time of elation, but a time of great fear and trepidation and that paper was at the heart of that story.

So in 2004 you became the editor. It was then the Mail & Guardian. How did you experience that? You were quite young, first female editor, first black editor?

With a fair amount of disbelief, because my colleague and friend Mondli Makhanya was moving on and he had pushed me to apply, and I think lobbied for me. And honestly, Ruda, I didn’t at all see the editor as a female form. I assumed it was going to be  Justice Malala, William Gumede, maybe bring Moegsien Williams across. I always imagined a figure of leadership as male. So to be in that position and to get the job, it was perfectly wonderful, but very, very daunting.

And do you think women lead differently?

I don’t know. Some of my colleagues will say I am a ball buster, but I hope that I bring certain traits of my own to my leadership role, which is to listen. Very flat structure. I am the only editor I know who doesn’t have an office – I really try and believe in the open door. Literally no door policy… Whether that is because of my gender or because of my upbringing, I’m not sure. But I do know that many say it is different. Some people say I like authority – I’m not that person.

And has the shape of that boss in your mind, has that changed now that you have walked that road?

Of course. I had to, very early on, accept it as a trailblazing role and take a position of leadership for other young women to come into the industry, because Paula Fray, Lakela Kaunda – the two women who first became editors – they left those roles quite quickly. So I had to help change the shape of how we understand leadership, and that’s why women leaders are very interesting to me. I study them and profile them a great deal, because I do think that it’s in our ability to reshape leadership and to reshape economies as well.

So what is it that you try and teach younger women coming through?

I find that you’ve got to teach them very basic lessons, that power doesn’t reside elsewhere, it’s within you. I try and teach them that it’s okay to speak up – nothing’s going to happen to you. I try and teach them that you don’t have to stick to the soft beats – you can do politics, you can do international stuff. One of the first huge debates I had at the Mail & Guardian was whether we send a young Afrikaans journalist to Swaziland to cover the protests there, and all the men in the room said: “No ways! You can’t send a woman to Swaziland! It’s a monarchy!” But we did, and you have those things happening all the time.

How did she react when she came back? What was her – and I don’t mean her newspaper report – I mean what kind of report did she give?

I firmly believe that if you have curiosity, tenacity and empathy – those are the three prime qualities. Not macho visage at all.

Why the move to City Press? How did that happen?

I realised that the Mail & Guardian was my “love place” and I could have stayed there forever, probably. But I spent a whole of time when I wanted to learn to do mass market journalism. So I am comfortable with Generations now, I can tell you about Khanyi Mbau ’till we’re finished here today!’ But I do feel it’s important to understand what makes our masses, our ordinary people tick, and how to tell big stories in a way that is not worthy.

Not worthy?

Worthy is a term that’s used in journalism to describe boring, and I think we have to make things like education, healthcare, the social system, how politics happens… We have to make it as exciting and compelling as writing about Generations, or any other number of things that people read. And that’s what I think I’ve learned to do at City Press.

How has the content of our newspapers changed? Because I have seen that happen – it’s much more graphic, it’s much more approachable?

It has to, because you and I get our information, I suspect, on phones and tablets, as do most South Africans today. The days of the 4500 read is just not possible – except maybe on a Sunday or if you have some leisure. For most people we’re living like “that”, in an attention deficit economy where we have very short consciousness, and journalism has to follow that. To tell news graphically, to tell it through pictures, to find different forms of storytelling.

Are you also exploring a new audience? Especially in South Africa, where people… there was such a huge percentage of our people who didn’t read? Who didn’t grow up with newspapers?

I think they’re reading on phones. They’re not reading newspapers and they’re reading what they want to read, and they’re reading locally and foreign and from everywhere. It’s an exciting, but terrifying moment to be a journalist, because no longer are you the broadcaster out. You’re having to shape your agenda by what people are telling you all the time, every day.

You changed, under your watch, City Press has gone from distinctly African, to… what is your motto now? All the facts, you decide?

Ja. So I loved distinctly African, because I think it was making yourself part of a very exciting continent. But locally it was being read as Distinctly African – black only, only for black people. And my mission, my brief from work was to make it a paper for all South Africans. To make onroads into it so that everyone felt comfortable reading it. Have I been successful? I’m not so sure. But we try. I think it’s important that we don’t have black media, white media any longer.

What have you done? How does one do that? How does one shift that?

I think you’ve got to get a variety of voices and you must only confirm people’s opinions or prejudices – it’s nice to shake them up with things that make them angry, and then we have a proper discussion and debate, because really, I think one of the unfortunate, but fortunate things is that we have no easy consensus in South Africa. On anything – from race to economic direction, to looting – was it xenophobia, was it not? There’s no easy consensus, and I think good journalism allows all of that to happen, as we decide what our path is as a nation.

I’m so aware that South Africa is not fixed yet, I mean, fixed in a pattern. You know, the Brits don’t even have a written constitution because everyone agrees, that this, this the way we do things. We don’t agree on the first thing. So you have also chosen to be a very public face – you know, many editors – especially print editors – stay behind the scenes. Was that a conscious choice? And why?

My instinct was to be quiet and to just edit quietly. But the role was thrust upon me and I have come to enjoy it and to learn how to put very unpopular opinions out there, to create a different agenda. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, because you really can get people quite let up, but I understand it as part of the shaping of what it is we’re going to be. Firstly I think we’re taking too long to decide – much too long.

It must be hard when the responses become personal.

There have been many instances where I’ve upset my own religious community – Muslim people – where I have upset the rump of our readers – black, middle class South Africans with the publication of the painting of The Spear. Nklandla and the coverage thereof has upset a whole lot of political leadership and attacks can get quite personal, but also I know that there are a group of people who understand the importance of the media in society and who do support us to do what we do. And they’re not silent supporters – they’re real.

But how do you not take it on when it becomes personal? By name? You are attacked, you are attacked as a person, as Ferial? Not just City Press or the media.

I think you grow a tough skin. In my job, I have been doing it for 11 years now, and you must decide which voices you’re going to listen to and learn, and some of it is just rough, tough, racist, macho stuff. I’m not going to do that. When I had a different opinion on Zelda la Granges tweets, recently, the first thing that people said back to me was “coolie” – and really, it’s water off a duck’s back. It’s their idiocy, not mine.

And the million dollar question. How do you see the future of print media?

I think print media will always be around, in the same way that successive waves of disruption haven’t wiped out the most recent things. So TV didn’t obliterate radio, radio didn’t obliterate print… it will get much smaller as an agenda-setting mechanism because I think people are reading differently – they’re reading on their technology, their phones, on their tablets. Good journalism will survive, even if print gets to be a tiny part of what we do.

How are we going to pay for it? How are we going to pay for that journalism?

There aren’t workable examples yet, and we have to understand… I don’t think it’s going to be a commercial model. The future of journalism is non-profit, and that’s something that a lot of us are working on very hard. We have to get foundations and philanthropists to see journalism – public interest journalism – in the same way that you see healthcare, social justice, et cetera. And fund it that way, off the books.

We saw that in America, we lived in Washington for four months, recently. And very often, at the end of a talk show, of a good in-depth talk show, there was a “thanks to” the Kellogg foundation, Coca Cola, et cetera et cetera.

It’s not something that you’re comfortable with, because it can harm independence. But I do think it’s the future. It’s a highly difficult balance, so we spent two days with some really clever people two weeks ago, where we began to think through how do you create distance between the money and the journalism, and that means an independent trust with leading figures in your society on it, but it’s what we’re going to have to do.


Otherwise all you’ll be reading about is Kim Kardashian, which is interesting.

What plans do you have? What do you want to do?

I want to write two books and do a study of the African middle class. I’ve come to a point in my life where I want to think a little more deeply about what we’re going to be as a nation and where we’re going, to answer those questions, because I get asked them a lot. And make myself part of the voice of those voices, saying here’s our scenarios, here’s what we could do.

Two books?


So the one on the African Middle Class, or Black Middle Class, and the other one?

I’m shy to tell you, but I will. It’s called “What if there were no whites”. And it’s a look at our race debate.

So if Van Riebeeck didn’t come?

Then what would have happened? Not really. But even now, I think it is a debate in our society  which believes falsely, that only if we had all the stuff whites have got, then everything will be cool. But actually that’s not true. And it’s often a debate formed on very wonky foundations, and I recognise it will be a difficult book to write, but I feel like the time is right for it.

And what are you thinking? Is it your kind of extended opinion piece? Or do you want to… what do you want to base it on?

It’s going to be based on sets of research which show how much things have changed. So property, pension, provident fund ownership, how we are doing as black people and what must happen in the future. So very much research-based, with some opinions threaded through it.

And have you started?

I’ve begun to assemble material.

How do you find time for long-term projects like that in the midst of a very busy career?

Well, what I am going to have to start doing is write 2000 words in the morning before I go to the office, and also getting that thing of a sabbatical and taking a bit of time off before I decide what I’m going to do next.

A slightly lighter topic. Tell me about your home? Where you are?

So I live halfway between – I live in two places. My mom’s home is in Mayfair, where I grew up. Mayfair being that place in the middle, where all the Somalians who got looted, ran to. That place, it’s filled with Somalians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis – the new immigrants. I find it quite exciting. Also I fight a lot of civic battles there, because it’s dirty. It’s an interesting area, but it’s becoming grimy and run-down. So that’s still what I call my community. My home, where I go for runs and have family and my dog, is in Parkhurst. And I like that, because now we’re going to go off the grid, we’re going to be powered by different means, and also we’re going to be the first with fibre (optics) to the home. So quick downloads and wonderful television, I hope.

What makes your house your home? You said your dog is there?

My dog, my niece, a student who live with me. But it’s also my quiet place, my thinking space. My dream is to add a yoga studio some time.

How do you create a quiet space? What do you physically put there?

As I hit my forties I found that you actually – you have to. Photographs, and just a physical quiet. I play loud music sometimes, but the garden’s nice. There’s a herb garden, a veggie garden that I’m busy doing and all of those give me great contemplative moments which I find myself more in need of.

What sold the house to you in the first place, when you saw it?

It was cheap! It was one of the few that still was under my budget.

Ferial, thank you so much.

Thank you very much, Ruda.

We wish you the very best. You’re in a very interesting space.

Thank you very much, Ruda. Lovely to chat.

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