A portrait of a room in Guguletu township, Cape Town. Photo by Alice Kotelo.
About a decade ago in South Africa, when apartheid was already on its deathbed, Mamphela Ramphele, then a university professor, spearheaded a study on employment equity at the University of Cape Town. The results were mainly unsurprising in a country coming out of 40 years of institutionalized racism. More than 90 percent of top-level academic and administrative positions were held by white men.
What was surprising was the almost complete absence of white women from the structures of power at what was considered a fairly liberal university. One of Ramphele’s aides, who’d conducted the research, remarked at the time that the legacy of apartheid education, poor social and living conditions for black people, as well as racist job hiring practices built into the law, could explain the racial discrepancy. What could explain the absence of white women from top-level positions—women who’d presumably had the same privileges of education and opportunity as their male counterparts? The prejudices that excluded women must be so deep, she reasoned, that they were especially hard to unravel, let alone combat.
The same question might be asked of the media in South Africa. Seven years after the end of apartheid, and three years into a new employment equity law intended to promote blacks and women, there are only three women newspaper editors in the country. One is black, two are white. One is editor of a weekly, one an editor of a business supplement that gets inserted into the dailies of the biggest English-language group, and the third is editor of a business weekly. None is editor of a daily. There was one black woman editor of a small circulation daily in Port Elizabeth, but her management closed down the newspaper, and she now works for the government.
The depth of the prejudice was shown a few years ago at the special hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about the media. A senior newspaper company executive said that when his (foreign) company had bought out the largest English-speaking news group in 1994, they could find no blacks or women in the entire company worthy of editorship.
It was, in retrospect and at the time, an astonishing statement. Women “manned” the engine rooms of newsrooms then, as now—they were copyeditors, chief copyeditors, news editors, and assistant editors. They were reporters on the frontlines covering the apartheid regime and the uprisings against it. They were senior political reporters and foreign editors. And it was two young black woman reporters who first broke the story of Winnie Mandela’s involvement in the murder of a child-activist in 1988 and of the murderous gang of “football players” she ran from her home. One reporter is no longer in the media. The other was Nomavenda Mathiane.
“Through Her Eyes”
Taking pictures and telling stories, women in two poor communities a continent and an ocean away share their lives and hardships with each other and with the world at large by participating in Through Her Eyes, a project based in Oakland, California. Co-directed by documentary film producer Cassandra Herrman and documentary photographer Mimi Chakarova, Through Her Eyes began in Cape Town, South Africa by giving cameras to women to document their lives. A similar project is taking place in East Oakland. The hope is that through this work these women find commonality in their experiences, first by exchanging images and stories and eventually by meeting one another. More information about this project, as well as additional images, can be found at www.throughhereyes.org.Nomavenda Mathiane, a senior black woman journalist with a Johannesburg daily, was, 10 years later, one of only two women who testified before the TRC hearings about the media under apartheid. She recalled that many of the black women entered the profession with the same qualifications as their male counterparts. “However for years editors and news editors relegated black female journalists to fill up women’s pages. In spite of the network of contacts that a woman might have had, and her high standard of education, she would be hired to report on domestic affairs, such as cookery pages, fashion, horoscopes, Dear Dolly columns, and church business,” she said in her testimony. Her black male counterparts, who entered the profession at the same time as her, are now publishers or senior editors, in spite of the oppressive burden they bore under apartheid, she said.
Mathiane’s cry to the TRC about the double dose of discrimination she suffered went largely unreported, except in the alternative press.
Only occasionally are the prejudices noticed. Independent Newspapers, which runs the largest group of newspapers in the country (and now has two women editors out of its 14 titles), has an international advisory board. Appointment to this is a sinecure: Board members include David Dinkins, former mayor of New York; Ben Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, and Anthony Sampson, Nelson Mandela’s official biographer. There is not one woman on the board.
One board member, who prefers not to be named, recalls how his wife, in order to highlight this anomaly, suggested at one board banquet to be addressed by South African president Thabo Mbeki that the board members sit separately from their spouses. When Mbeki walked in, he saw one table comprising only men (the board members), and one table comprising only women. He couldn’t help but remark on it.
Mbeki made a similar observation at a meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in late 1999, when the only woman on a stage full of premiers, apart from the Queen of England, was the prime minister of Bangladesh. The only two other female heads of government were absent. “Our continuing failure genuinely to respond to the challenge to attain human equality, is demonstrated by the very composition of our meeting, according to which, clearly, maleness continues to be a critical criterion for accession to political leadership,” said Mbeki in his opening address. “The Commonwealth contains a significant proportion of the women of the world. It cannot be that we pride ourselves as a Commonwealth when that special collective distinguishes itself by defining women as alien beings.”
For the media, though, the real question is why it matters. It’s easy to see in a country such as South Africa why rapid black advancement matters. With a black majority and blacks controlling government, there is huge potential instability in the fact that whites still control most businesses and professions. It is also easy to see why recruitment and promotion of African-American journalists mattered in the United States at a certain period.
Jerelyn Eddings, who has run the Freedom Forum offices in Johannesburg for the past four years and is a 1985 Nieman Fellow, was recruited into the media at the time when the civil rights movement and black urban protests in the United States were at their height. White journalists simply couldn’t get the story. “In those days, African-American journalists were practically grabbed off the streets,” she says. In the United States (and probably in South Africa), says Eddings, racial and ethnic diversity is more important in allowing the media a broader worldview, but gender is increasingly important. “South Africa missed the women’s movement,” she says. “So a lot of the battles that were fought earlier in America and Europe, they’re only having here now.”
But is there “women’s news” in the same way as there is “black news”? South Africa’s three female editors are not convinced there is, but still believe their presence makes a difference. “It would be wrong to assume that we have a different world view simply because of our gender,” says Paula Fray, editor of the Saturday Star and a 2001 Nieman Fellow. “Just as we have been trained to write news with an inverted pyramid model, our concept of what now defines news has been molded by an essential white male model. I think that is part of our challenge—to recognize that we, too, hold stereotypes molded by the environment we have grown up and have been socialized in. I think the greatest challenge I face as an editor is to recognize that and create a space in which reporters and production staff can debate and redefine how we cover stories, whose stories we cover, and whose voices we use to give life to those stories.”
Alide Dasnois, editor of Business Report, a business supplement inserted into most of the Independent newspaper titles, says it means writing about issues in a slightly different way. She says her presence as editor means that there is a conscious attempt to get black and women economists or businesspeople into the paper. “Some of the top economists in the country are women,” Dasnois says. “They don’t have to prove anything, but it’s rare they get quoted.”
I would argue there’s another reason that “women’s news” is critical in a country such as South Africa. Since the demise of apartheid, our greatest social challenges are arguably violence against women and children and the terrifying AIDS epidemic spreading through the country. As recently as two years ago, several male editors dismissed stories about AIDS or rape as being too gloomy. When I ran the op-ed pages of one paper, I suggested publishing a story by a journalist who was also a rape victim. The story was a critique of the criminal justice system and the way it dealt with rape. My then-editor responded: “But we’ve done rape; we did it last week.” In a country that has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, it seemed odd to have considered rape “done.”
Even today, many attempts by male editors to “take women seriously” are clumsy. At a recent editors’ conference a senior editor said: “We must realize that women are an increasingly important part of our society.”
“It’s as if he were talking about another species,” said one of the two women present. “Imagine if a woman were to say: ‘We must realize that men are an increasingly important part of our society.’”
In South Africa, the voices of women are critical because the rapid spread of AIDS is closely related to their status. It is not only rape that spreads the disease. Many poorer women, particularly those in rural areas where AIDS is most devastating, have no power to insist that men use a condom and little power to stop certain rough sexual practices that increase their vulnerability. There is also a widespread myth that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, and as a result there has been a frightening rise in incidents of child rape. The most recent and horrific example is the case of a nine-month-old baby gang-raped by six men. It is encouraging to see that one of the biggest dailies, The Star, has taken up the issue with unprecedented energy (the editor, by the way, is male). The incident hogged Page One for more than a week, and the paper has even started a public fund to support the damaged baby.
There may be a bottom-line reason, too, about why women in the media matter. South African newspapers have experienced falling circulations in the last few years, despite the increase in literacy and the rise of a black middle class. One newspaper in Britain has decided that the way to increase circulation is to attract more women readers. It is a lesson that seems to have been taken to heart at The Star. There is hardly a day when its readership is not confronted with news that a few years ago would have been relegated to the women’s pages.
Nearly half a century ago, a group of women drew up a “Women’s Charter” in which they said: “The level of civilization which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test of civilization. Measured by that standard, South Africa must be considered low in the scale of civilized nations.”
The women were members of the African National Congress (ANC). The Charter preceded one of the biggest protests ever against apartheid when thousands of women marched on Pretoria in 1956 to protest the extension to women of the oppressive “pass laws” (whereby all African men had to have a permit to be in the cities under pain of instant arrest). Famous were the remarks of men who supported women in their quest but for quite different reasons. “The government cannot give your women a pass if you do not want to, because the women she is under the control of a man,” one man was quoted as saying at an antipass meeting.
We are a long way on from 1956. The ANC now rules South Africa and the Constitution enshrines equality across race and gender. Yet it is hard to imagine how the media today, which relies on democracy for its own freedom, can sustain that freedom without including in its most senior ranks a diversity representing our whole society. Perhaps, too, media managements might also find that equity pays off—in readership, in credibility, and eventually, yes, in the bottom line.
Pippa Green, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, is associate deputy editor of the Financial Mail in Johannesburg, South Africa.