The rooinek who struck glossy gold

Jane Raphaely: The iron lady of glossy magazines. (Halden Krog, Gallo Images)

Jane Raphaely: The iron lady of glossy magazines. (Halden Krog, Gallo Images)

UNEDITED by Jane Raphaely (Associated Media Publishing)

You don't give birth to a successful magazine and launch another successful magazine on South African shores because there just wasn't a reason not to. So when Jane Raphaely, long-standing editor of Fairlady and Cosmopolitan, elaborated on why she did just that by saying "I have only ever wanted two words on my T-shirt: Why not?" I was immediately vexed. But that feeling might also have been as a result of the mention — on the very first page of her autobiography, Unedited — of the nice things Nelson Mandela said about her.

The book's pink back jacket and the list of 12 adjectives on its inside back flap describing her as "unabashed, unbeaten, uncensored, etcetera ..." didn't help either. I got that same uneasy feeling one gets when someone unexpectedly and proudly tells you what he earns.

The problem of using Mandela's opinions as general endorsement of character aside, the book didn't start well for me. It got better, though, and through the recollections of what it means to be hungry-poor, marching for political freedom and sexual enlightenment, it quickly revealed itself to be an entertaining collection of "true tales of a fun, fearless female", as billed.

And read it you should — this will appeal to every woman who has ever worked and raised a family in a country that is not yet out of the era in which women are unequally represented in home and office.

Raphaely, now 76 years old, isn't coy about her — at times — torrid family life, describing how her "drinker" father called her and her siblings his "flat-faced little Irish bastards", unintentionally revealing what Raphaely was later to find out: that her father had another wife and family in another city.

She also had a bullying aunt who once, in a fit of anger, tackled her father to the ground in front of her and her mother. This same relative also admitted obliquely years later that she had had some kind of a strange sexual encounter with her nephew, Raphaely's brother.

Raphaely's background showed me that it was the wisdom acquired from this struggle that fuelled her pursuit of success and grew her compassion for others.

To make ends meet she worked throughout her teenage years: as an agent for a mail-order company selling household goods, a shoe seller, a gofer employed to fetch pies and chips for factory workers and, as a student, to replace the reels on spinning machines in cotton mills.

A bright mind sparkled when Raphaely learned confidence through numerous Rotary appearances and TV show appearances as a student. She diverted stalkers and fell in love. Her strong-willed and vibrant mother and aunts and defiance of crushing remarks for being Jewish in an intolerant 1940s England were a big part of the entertaining background story.

Her arrival in Cape Town was where the going got exciting. After cutting her teeth in ad-vertising and writing as a freelance journalist, media company Nasionale Pers asked the "heavily pregnant rooinek (English person)" to start one of the first English women's magazines in South Africa — Fairlady — and so began an almost 50-year-long journey in the publishing industry.

A large part of the book deals with the endless battles, beginning in the 1960s, against censorship of mostly articles or photo spreads about sexuality. In a Fairlady editorial from 1974, Raphaely wrote about censorship: "It is only by reading the good, the bad and the ugly that one can hope to discriminate between them. If you take away the freedom of choice, you impair the ability to reject and select. Any organisation that takes over this basic human right is impoverishing the society it so desperately wants to protect."

Perhaps the reason for the magazine's success as well as that of subsequent titles under Raphaely's editorship is because "it took positions on political issues, not from a woman's viewpoint but from a humanitarian one". Some of these included squatter evictions, propaganda, child abuse, press freedom and the recognition of black trade unions.

"It was difficult for anyone in Nasionale Pers to argue with any editor whose magazine was selling 216 000 [copies] in the early Eighties," Raphaely writes. Reading how she endured at least two men who arrived at her office armed with guns and an evidently strong message for her sealed the impression for me that editing a magazine is not as glamorous as many assume it to be.

There are sad moments in the book, such as when, after the death of a friend, she describes how she couldn't physically drive out of the driveway.

And there are tender moments. She writes how at the front door she "kept a large fluffy rug there to lie down on as soon as I came home … so [the children] could crawl all over me".

One of my favourite anecdotes is when her "blue tent" of a dress —aimed at hiding pregnancies that were in those days supposed to be kept at home — became useful at a lunch with work acquaintances. Police wanting to round up black employees who were not carrying their passbooks raided the restaurant. "I felt someone scuffling at my feet. A terrified woman was under the table, trying to get under my skirt. I lifted it up, let her in and made space for her between my knees."

Besides her well-touted "smile and wave" advice, she tells readers that some of the criticism received from unscrupulous quarters, as is often the case with the media, should be celebrated as hitting a worthy nerve. A social worker from Langa told her once: "Sometimes you have to ride on the back of the devil to get to the other side of the river."

I was given this book to review because I was young enough for it to be assumed that I had not had any dealings with Raphaely herself. I haven't. I'm glad that the sometimes self-indulgent comments did not leave a lasting impression. Instead, I was left encouraged by the story of a woman who could launch, rescue and run magazines that have stirred and enthused many South African women for almost 50 years — and continue to do so.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.
  • Read more from Victoria John
  • Client Media Releases

    Roadshows create awareness of Sanral's youth programmes
    Business models and books to abandon
    FTI offers discounted Business Analysis courses
    SENTECH achieves another clean audit
    Makhamisa Foods at America's food and beverage show