Let’s restore M&G’s start-up vigour


Hello, Mail & Guardian readers.

A month ago, I would have sooner taken a wager on President Jacob Zuma developing a conscience than I would on me being here as editor. Fortunately, I’m not the betting type.

Amid the tumult of the past few weeks, the warmth and graciousness with which the M&G community has welcomed me is humbling.

Still, I can’t say that it is a dream come true to be here — because I could never even have dreamed of being here. For some, ascending the ranks to one of the most prized positions in journalism in Africa is a rite of passage. It is never questioned. It is the order of the universe. It is the way things are done. I, however, am not supposed to be here. I’m certainly not supposed to have arrived here with such apparent haste. And I’m not supposed to look so different.

It is 2016 in South Africa and the ability of a woman to do her job is questioned when she is appointed to a position of relative authority.

Amid the thousands of messages of congratulations I’ve received in the past three weeks, I’ve also encountered another brand of well-wishers. In between asking valid questions about my vision for the publication and what my priorities will be, the legitimacy of my appointment has been questioned.

Am I not too young for this job? Too inexperienced? What were my new bosses thinking? Am I not too quiet? After all, would I be able to hold my own if I received a call from an angry Gwede Mantashe late one night? The implication here is that it’s cute that I think I can do this job, but actually others know better.

I am curious about this scrutiny of my abilities, qualifications and temperament. In the swirl of events leading up to my appointment, I was ill-prepared to respond to it with the derision it deserves. Because this is not just about me. It is about how we treat women in positions of relative authority. It is about how women are expected to justify their being. Because, let’s be clear: that same scrutiny would not be afforded to a man, especially a white man.

I certainly am young — for those who are wondering, I do qualify for ANC Youth League membership but only for another few years — and I do have much to learn.

But the M&G — at this point in time, at this point in the development of our industry, in the midst of a sluggish economy, following on from the appointment of Verashni Pillay, another young woman editor — needs to continue honing its reputation for excellent journalism.

And this is the M&G way.

Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim were 25 and 29 years old respectively when they established The Weekly Mail in 1985. As much as the story of the M&G is about the power of excellent journalism, it is also the story of the power of young people who rise above severe restrictions to do excellent journalism.

All these years later, the might of the M&G does not lie in fulfilling the expectations of the elites. The M&G was not established to be safe. It is meant to produce challenging work. It is meant to probe. It is meant to be a cause of great irritation for people in power. The M&G is meant to be bold, abrasive and free of the bulk of bureaucracy.

What I hope to do, then, is to emulate the dogged determination that characterised the early days of The Weekly Mail. We need to start thinking like a start-up again. And fortunately, I have the experience of establishing The Daily Vox to carry through that start-up philosophy here. Although this publication is indeed an asset of our democracy right now, our challenge remains to maintain its relevance to our democratic institutions, yes, but also to the people.

I don’t doubt that there are crippling challenges ahead. But I also don’t doubt my own resilience.

In the short time I’ve been here already, I’ve spent it trying to understand the mechanics of what we do. I am confident that we already have a strong team assembled, all of whom are committed to unpacking the complexities of the world, ­asking where we are going and what it all means.

My job is to ensure we do this well and do it unencumbered by political, commercial and social pressure.

There is no more exciting time to be a journalist in South Africa. And I’m thrilled to be here at the M&G, working alongside an exceptionally talented team, many of whom are young.

Let us not mistake youth for ignorance or respect for complaisance. This country’s history shows us that it is young people who continue to lead us. And if I do anything during my time here, what I hope to do is to ensure that the M&G remains a bastion of excellent journalism that is unfettered by the pressures of elites.  

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Khadija Patel
Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, a co-founder of the The Daily Vox and vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and the Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand) and has previously worked in community media. In 2017, she was among 11 people from across Africa and the diaspora who were awarded the inaugural Africa #NoFilter fellowship from the Ford Foundation and in 2018, she was awarded honorary membership of the Golden Key Society. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good.

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