During a discussion on the Redi Tlhabi Show on 702 talk Radio, about ‘children who steal’, earlier this year, most of the call-in guests were against punishing children by ‘sending them to their rooms’. A listener following the show on twitter then posted: “Go to your room punishment doesn’t work in an RDP house Lol!!!! Dead for days”.
Tlhabi laughed so much, she could not introduce the news headlines slot which was due to follow immediately. But before that she was quick to qualify their bit of fun, saying that she and her guest had not actually been laughing at the way people who live in RDP houses or shacks lived, but ... well I don’t know what they were laughing at, but the way Tlhabi seemed to get all defensive was a revelation to me, or am I being judgemental?
I mean she might be a presenter of an international news network television talk show, after all, she was born in Soweto. She should not have been surprised by the comment from the twit. That should have been the first thing that came to her mind, that although some might be disciplining their children by sending them to their rooms, she had never experienced that as a child and it was therefore not even an option for her children, or am I being too presumptuous?
Tlhabi is arguably the most influential women in the media industry in Mzansi today. The ‘Redi Tlhabi’ brand has grown exponentially in 2013. She now hosts a new TV talk show on Al Jazeera called South2North, while her debut memoir, called Endings and Beginning: A Story of Healing, has won the prestigious Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. She is the niece of the late former premier of the Free State, Winkie Direko. Marriage and a baby on the way add to this ‘black woman brand’s’ galaxy of achievements this year. BBQ caught up with her in this exclusive fact finding mission.
In the 30 June issue of the Sunday Times, you wrote an open letter to Makaziwe Mandela. This was obviously in response to her TV interview about the behaviour of some journalist ...
You can’t choose how the media reports on you — that’s just wrong. I think people don’t understand the role of the media. The media [journalists] are not public relation officers. When you are in that space in the public eye, and I’m not just talking about the Mandela’s, publicity is par for the course. It comes with being a Mandela and it would be wrong for the media to be taking instructions from any quarters. What they need to ensure is: are they reporting the truth? Are they failing in their pursuit of the truth? If they’re not, then there are measures that people can take. You can sue newspapers, or you can take them to the ombudsman. It is uncomfortable. Few people don’t like it, but it just is what it is. Do I like it? No! I think sometimes some of the stories are intrusive. I think sometimes some of the revelations are shocking, but if it’s news then it must be reported on and the newsmaker must realise that it comes with who they are.
Have you had any backlash from that column?
I wouldn’t say backlash. I think that’s melodramatic, but I think there were people who didn’t agree with me and I take it on the chin. Everytime I open my mouth or even write something, I operate in a public space with highly contested views. There will be people who don’t agree, some express it by challenging the effects of what I’m saying. Some challenge it and call me names — being personal. It’s fine, it’s just water off a duck’s back, I expect it. I can’t cry foul and say oh they’re being unfair. Nobody is being unfair I’ve written something and people are responding to it and they have a right to respond in the way they want.
Why did you decide to study journalism?
I remember my late father reading his newspapers when my brother was eight years old and I was seven. Now you can imagine that we didn’t really understand the stories but he forced us to read. I had to read one page of the Sunday Times and one page of City Press and my brother had to do the same and then we had to tell him what we have read. Most of the time we got it wrong and we spoke a lot of rubbish, but I think that wasn’t his point. His point was to enthuse us and to plant a seed in us to be interested in the world around us. I think that’s where my love for news started. When I was 12, when Mandela was released from prison and I watched the news journalist speaking to him, shoving cameras in front of his face and I thought I wish I was there. I had to be there. I used to stand in front of a mirror with a deodorant can and pretend I was reporting and interviewing someone.
Like Christiane Amanpour?
I used to be a little Christiane Amanpour in my mother’s bedroom with a roll-on deodorant canister and I would talk, that’s why I’m here.
I’m interested in how you made the transition from Soweto to studying at the Rand Afrikaanse Universiteit. Was it a normal transition or was it something different?
The biggest transition for me was moving from a school in Orlando East (Soweto) to a school in the suburbs because the teaching was different. The quality of learning was different and the competition was stiff, so that was a bit of a traumatic experience and a bewildering environment. I wouldn’t say the transition from high school to RAU was bewildering because I was in boarding school at Potchefstroom Girls High. We were all excited about the chance to study and eventually get degrees which were going to open doors for us. It was very smooth and it was something that I was looking forward to. I chose RAU because their literature department was one of the best in the country and I wanted to study literature as well as journalism.
Were you easily accepted into that community and the school?
Potch was an Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) hotbed when I got to Potchefstroom Girls in 1993. I was among the first groups of black pupils. In the school itself we didn’t feel that there were any pressures. We were not aware of the big divide. We just got on with things, but in the community (which was very, very conservative) you didn’t see black and white people operate as equals. When we were allowed to go to town we’d see AWB people and that reminded us that we were in a different town. But the school was very protective. It was only on Saturdays when we went to town that we felt that we were visitors in our own country. When I joined the provincial youth choir, the Noord Wes Jeug Koor (North West Youth Choir), I was the first black person there and I only learned years later that the parents of the kids were given letters, asking if it was okay to have a black child there.
As a member of the choir?
This wasn’t a school choir. The choir was made up of pupils from different schools in Potchefstroom and our school was the only English one in the area. I was interacting not only with the English speaking kids from my school, but also with the Afrikaans speaking kids. I’m sure some of their parents were AWB.
How many of you were black?
It was just me. I joined the youth choir thinking that there would be other black kids and there were not. Not just was there no black kids — there was only one English speaking white kid and the rest were Afrikaans. This was 1993 and it was at a time of chaos. I was part of the choir and children are children — we got to know each other and that was it. I did sense that some of the parents were tense around me, but I didn’t care and made lots of friends and life just went on.
Where there extra pressures?
During my time we had to overcome the language barriers, coping with being taught in English and speaking in English in class. I think those of us who did not go to township schools we were very aware of the gift we’d been given — not by the school themselves, but by our parents who worked so hard to send us to those schools. They knew the shortfalls of the township schools. I attended two township schools and going from a Soweto school to a suburban school was a difficult transition. It was traumatic because in the township school I was number one. I was doing well. At the suburban school the competition was tough. At that time black kids at suburban schools were likely to fail because we were juggling so many things — one of them being a foreign language. But I don’t think that’s a history that the current generation needs to be burdened with. They have their own challenges and they must find a way around it. It should be normal for our kids to go to good schools and we shouldn’t force them to have the kind of appreciation that we’ve had as children. Ours was born out of the fact that we came from different circumstances. If this is all that they’d been exposed to, then let them have it.
You did some work at Network Radio News. Was that your first job?
Yes it was my first job. I was still studying at the time and worked there when I did not have class.
Did that motivate you?
I loved it. It confirmed that this is what I wanted to do; chasing news, interviewing people and covering stories. I covered the 1999 elections during my final year at varsity, but I was entrusted with covering the East Rand, which was burning at that time.
I didn’t have a car at the time and had to take taxis when I was out in the field, covering the elections and presenting the stories for Network Radio News .
You then went on to Kaya FM and you did not stay there for long. How did that end, why did you leave Kaya FM?
New opportunities presented itself from the SABC and it was time to spread my wings. I auditioned for a TV show and for radio and they were very keen to have me there. The audience was bigger and there was a lot more scope for growth. It was a chance for me to to learn how to juggle a whole lot of things —and to mix television with radio. It was literally moving to greener pastures.
From the SABC you moved to Mzansi Magic. How did that come about?
Some colleagues and I proposed a talk show to SABC. It was called Redi. It was about me having conversations with interesting people from all walks of life — from pregnant teenagers to recovering drug addicts to children who are geniuses. I’ve interviewed some really interesting people. I spoke to Benni McCarthy when his international career ended and he joined Orlando Pirate. I interviewed women in leadership positions about how they navigate the workplace and what is it that they do when they’re under pressure. It was quite a hectic mix of guests and topics.
The advent of social media has changed the way people consume news and current affairs. Do you think there will be a demand for programmes like South2North?
There will always be a demand because South2North is not just straight forward news. It is about talking to the people behind the news. If a pilot of a plane in trouble tweets: “I’ve just landed the plane and this is how I did it.” we can run that. We will get him in the studio to talk about the experience. What was going on in his mind? How did he calm his crew down? Has he been in this kind of situation before? News is not the entire conversation, news is more of an announcement that this has happened but there will always be room for analysis and commentaries and that’s what we do on South2North. It’s about getting commentary and reaction. We have a number of guests on the show and the different guests feed off each other and the show becomes a conversation.
What community activities do you partake in?
I’m interested in what happens in my community and a lot of my content comes from that. For example I take up the causes of vulnerable people who call my show. There was a woman who was forced to give birth on a street corner in Alexandra in Johannesburg because she was turned away from a medical facility. That was not just a story for me. I ran with it and I exposed it on the radio. I kept contact with her, I followed up to make sure that she’s fully integrated into the community and she gets the help that she needs.
A lot of women are finding themselves in situations where they have the qualifications but are not happy in their jobs. What advice would you give them, how can they find happiness?
Leave, if you’re not doing what you want to do. Be honest with yourself and make sure that the reasons you’re not happy are real. For example, if you’re unhappy because your company is going through a difficult period, or if you’re unhappy because you’re being taken out of your comfort zone for a while; those are surmountable challenges and we need to just grow up and navigate our way through them. But if you’re unhappy because you feel that the core of who you are does not resonate with the job that you’re doing, leave. Life is about starting again, it is about new beginnings. But don’t leave without discovering what it is you don’t like about your situation and without having a plan of how you’re going to do things differently.
So you use the medium at your disposal for a greater good?
I think we have a responsibility to do that. Our listeners are not just people who tune in, they are people with lives, with a history, with a context and I think it’s fair that as they listen to us we give meaning to the relationship by giving back. The Redi Tlhabi show on 702 adopts a lot of schools, raises funds for those schools, do speaking engagements and mentoring. If I get invited by a school in Orlando East I still go back to speak to the young people so that’s what I meant by having an interest. I’m not a community worker but I’ve got an interest in matters which affect the community. If we strengthen our communities, then we strengthen the country. So as and when I’m able to, as with Nelson Mandela Day, I spent time at a school in Atteridgeville. I will identify what needs they have, we go on the radio and we talk about it and quite ofter our partners would offer assistance and so we make a difference in the lives of those children.