Power’s Changing Shape

It is a meeting I am anticipating. Not only because Ferial is an admirable writer and a journalist of esteem but because she is possibly the most important appointment in print media in South Africa’s recent history. It would be patronising to suggest that her appointment is on account of a gender quota or even a matter of race (as some circles might whisper). As those who have had the privilege to work with Ms. Haffajee would attest, she is perhaps the best person to take one of South Africa’s most influential newspapers into a new era.

A conversation with Ferial Haffajee is an opportunity to understand her views on the political and professional responsibility of being a black woman in a still male dominated profession. It is an occasion for her to reveal the vision and strategy she brings to bear on her duties as editor of the Mail & Guardian. Most significantly, the burden she bears is to dispel those prevailing platitudes in this country that black women function as strategic symbols of transformation. The terrain is changing for women, especially for black women with the skills and expertise to lead transformation.

Professor of law at Columbia University Patricia J. Williams, author of many books on the subject of race, gender and the law, has observed that transformative institutional practices are most palpable when lead by individuals with an acute understanding of historical and social contexts. It is not simply about the experience of being marginalised, but about understanding the necessary infrastructural changes to empower people in significant and dynamic ways. In her closing keynote address at the 1997 Reith Lectures on the BBC, Williams concluded by saying: “We must be grittily, steadfastly, tenaciously, determined to dream, and to act – to bring our best visions into the realm of reality.” When I spoke to Ferial I was reminded of this lecture: the quiet tenacity of her actions, the steadfastness of her vision, and her determination to bring bona fide institutional change.

FH: I felt honest about applying for the post, knowing that I would be capable of doing the job with my background and experience both in managing, and in writing politics and economics. So for me it was not a matter of race or gender but an issue of having a firm grasp of the print media terrain. The gendered lens is an added extra; it is something I can offer as a fresh and new perspective to create a balance.

JM: Being the editor of a newspaper that shapes public opinion and policy, how do you imagine a “gendered” position impacts the content of the publication?

FH: I think that am I extremely fortunate to have the context of the Mail & Guardian. The history of the publication and the approach has always engaged with feminist debates. In fact the publication offers possibilities that for example the Financial Mail, my last job, does not, in a sense that the M&G is about promoting a gendered angle. It is in the images offered in the publication and in the people who write the articles that an alternate, a diverse worldview is presented. It is also about ensuring that people in the newsroom are attentive to feminist debates and understand the issues.

JM: That seems like a challenge, to ensure that people in the newsroom are conscious of a gendered angle or approach.

FH: It is, but I think this is where training is vital. It means educating people in the newsroom by exposing them to the debates. If we change the approach in the newsroom and make equality a living thing then it comes through in the writing.

JM: Debates in the newsroom about feminist issues seems like a philosophical approach, but how does one actually redress the historical and current gender discrepancies in the newsroom and in editorial copy?

FH: At this point at the M&G the share is 60% women and 40% men, so in that respect we are not doing too badly. But the problem is in the newsroom leadership where racial and gender imbalances need to be addressed. Here the hiring policy needs to change and young female reporters need to be brought up; it’s about succession planning and making sure that we develop people from within the paper to bring them up into the newsroom leadership.

JM: I agree with your observation that training is key to transforming perspectives but it seems to me that the training is in part flawed. I have on a different occasion maintained that successful women journalists are those that do not write from a women’s point of view. It is precisely because they are capable of dissolving their gender, more specifically a “gendered” perspective that makes them successful.

FH: I have seen women “dissolve” their gender when they get into a leadership position because that is often the easy route to quick comfort and the establishment of a routine. It’s a route I eschew, though it is also important that a knowledge of, and a commitment to, gender is not all I bring to my job. Because I waited for a leadership position I was ready for, I’m also comfortable in the fields of economics, politics, editing and investigations.

There is such a strong tradition of patriarchal writing and young women writers have not been encouraged or given the context to explore a gendered position in their writing.

In that sense the M&G was a fabulous training ground because it gave me the opportunity to write my identity into what I was researching. Who you are and what point of view you bring to the story is important. To embroider one’s personality and perspective, once you have mastered the basics of journalistic writing, by implication is to create a more diverse media.

JM: What strategies have you adopted at the M&G to deal with management challenges?

FH: M&G has a reputation of attracting people who really want to be journalists. It is an environment in which training is important, so people leave with very good experience in researching and writing news events rather than relying on press conference stories. Definitely solid training, to develop team building and diffusing cliques is part of the strategic plan. What is important is to develop writers and quality writing. Quality writing, to go back to what we were talking about, is about encouraging different perspectives and creating a diverse media.

JM: In creating this diversity in the M&G do you imagine changing the editorial mix to more feature based writing?

FH: Readers will definitely see more features – many people have already lobbied me for the return of The Read – a long regular feature.

JM: Certainly various and differing perspectives in the media are absent and it’s not just a matter of race or gender. But if we remain with gender as a case study how might we see the landscape of journalism change.

FH: For me it’s about the figures of authority that inform media comment and analysis. The “thinkers” cited in the pages; the talking heads are all men. The challenge is now to look for women figures of authority and to find out what they think. It is really important that we find women columnists with more profile who comment on politics and economics.

JM: There is the image of the glass ceiling suffocating and stagnating the careers of women in the media. What conditions do you image create the context for women to skate, if not soar above this glass ceiling?

FH: The shape of power has changed. And here one sees it in government, business and in NGOs because women are in leadership roles and have the opportunity to bring a feminist agenda to the fore. It is incumbent on women to create change and to bring other women with them.

JM: This sounds too much like sisterhood solidarity to me. I would maintain that not all women are necessarily committed to gender empowerment. In fact it may be argued that governments often strategically place women in portfolios that veil conservative policies precisely because women are spokespersons for that policy.

FH: There’s nothing like sisterhood and solidarity—

Governments may well do that and not all women are peaceniks or feminists—look at Condoleezza Rice [US National Security adviser], look at our own Lindiwe Sisulu [Minister of Intelligence], or lefties like Geraldine Fraser Moleketi, the public service minister, who regularly strong-arms the trade unions. Leadership comes in many forms; we don’t all have to agree with each other.

Dr. Jyoti Mistry is Head of Television in the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has worked as a filmmaker in New York and Vienna and holds a Ph.D in Cinema Studies from New York University.

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