How it all began...
I often shy away from telling the story of how I became a journalist because it perhaps sounds a bit … cheesy. It involves an evil government, a year long pilgrimage and – I’m afraid to add – a night of epiphany in the desert.
But journalism is not for the faint-hearted.
So perhaps one needs to be called with dollops of inspiration, as I was, to weather the storms that will inevitably follow – and I’ve certainly had my fair share.
But let’s return to that original story. I was a confused but passionate teenager, growing up in the still present but receding shadow of the apartheid state. Apartheid had officially ended when I was ten but there was still much work to be done in our young democracy.
I was passionate for obvious reasons: ever since I’d opened the colourful little illustrated book that government had distributed countrywide, and which contained our country’s first democratic Constitution, I was committed to the cause of a fair and just society. But what to study?
Thus began a long search, starting with a gap year programme dedicated to helping young people find their purpose. It was on a starry night (seriously) during a trip to the Namibian desert that very year – at which point I’d begun to despair of ever coming to a decision – that I felt it in my gut. I’d been torn between English and Law: writing versus fighting for justice. That’s when it hit me: journalism.
After that my career – both as a student and young journalist – took off.
“Formerly disadvantaged” as the phrase went, my parents, as South Africans of colour, had been stopped at every stage of their lives from living up to the fullness of their potential by the apartheid state. They didn’t have the money to send me to the prestigious university that was the go-to place to study journalism at the time: Rhodes University.
Nevertheless, I was determined and so began a wondrous four years of learning – twinned with working several jobs and applying for every bursary I could think of.
I held many leadership positions during that time and went on to win a scholarship that later saw me graduate in 2007 and work for the biggest media company in the country: Media24.
The next ten years was a steep career trajectory. After two years at Media24, I was hired by the prestigious investigative newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, in their new-ish digital division. I fell in love with digital journalism and won a slew of awards, including the CNN Africa journalist of the year competition.
After five years at the M&G, I worked my way up unexpectedly to becoming Editor-In-Chief at age 31. While it was one of my goals, no one expected it to happen so fast.
But the paper was in trouble; a steep decline in the circulation of print publications had seen some close their doors. Together with a skeletal but talented team, I worked feverishly to turn things around. Within a year I’d stabilised circulation and staff morale, and put together an inspired and energised team.
A year later, HuffPost announced it would be launching in South Africa and I was headhunted as the editor-in-chief. It was a dream come true and I went for it.
Every heroine must have their trials and this was where my good fortune severely faltered. The publication was enormously under-resourced and my requests for sub-editors and other staff was turned down while the targets for content and clicks continuously increased. In the end management was demanding thirty unique stories a day from less than five (mostly) junior reporters. I was working crazy hours to make it work and cracked under the pressure: my blog editor published a piece that turned out to be fake – a discovery that was made after I defended the author from sexist attacks.
The world came crashing down. The heat and criticism on social media was intense. After a ruling from our Press Ombudsman that the blog constituted hate speech, I resigned on principle in April 2017, without receiving a pay-out of any kind.
Shortly after, I appealed the hate speech ruling, which was widely slammed. While the blog was fake and and controversial, it was not hate speech and many activists believed it set a bad precedent for our democracy. I had the strongest legal standing to appeal and won comprehensively. The ruling was overturned in what many saw as vindication for me.
But I realised my upward trajectory of a career had been disrupted for a reason. For some time now I’ve been aware that South African and African news media seems to cater exclusively for the elites. We don’t reach ordinary Africans where they are digitally, or in their language.
Since my time at the M&G, before I became editor, I’ve been interested in finding solutions to address this problem.
In July, I became been head of digital at Power FM, a broadcaster committed to empowering under-serviced black audiences. I hired a team and pulled together a comprehensive digital strategy for the organisation while investigating new ways to make an impact within the digital sphere.
In 2019 I realised it was time to step out to pursue my larger passion: making news accessible to all.
After a successful pilot, I launched explain.co.za, a news service dedicated to creating simple but nuanced news summaries for busy people.
My journey continues with this site. As I explained in the welcome post, For the first time, I am allowing myself to express all aspects of myself – from my political views which is perhaps all you’ve heard from me previously – to my journey through life. For so long I have held close to my chest the lessons I have learned, often through great difficulty. I have realised that this instinct to protect myself, though born out of understandable reasons given the bullying I’ve been exposed, is not only wrong, it’s limiting. There exists a phrase: don’t waste your suffering.
Three years after the devastating experiences at HuffPost South Africa I still meet people who express their admiration for me, for how I “bounced back”. But the fact is, beyond the difficulties I’ve faced publicly in my life, there have been many other private hardships, lessons and rejoicings. Given how harshly people can judge one publicly I have kept these to myself. But I no longer want to live a small life.