A Conversation with Nwabisa Makunga – Editor, The Herald
LM: Thank you so much Sisi for your willingness to participate in our leadership conversation series, I’m sure our conversation will inspire many young leaders across the continent.
NM: Thank you very much for this invitation Buti.
LM: Congratulations on your new role as Head of The Herald, how does it feel?
NM: It’s actually quite amazing to be given the privilege to manage platforms that start and facilitate important, daily conversations in this beautiful city. It is an opportunity that exposes one to learning so much about our county, in ways I would not have been able to otherwise. I am truly honoured to be part of this work.
LM: My father was a ferocious reader, and he instilled this culture of reading in me from an early age. The first newspaper I read and that become my first source of news for many years was The Herald Newspaper. Tells us a bit about this newspaper, its history, reach and circulation?
NM: The Herald is South Africa’s oldest newspaper. Its journey has really mirrored that of our country over the years and in many ways. It is now a dynamic, multi-platform read that engages with you about all aspects of South African life, in particular the best and worst of Nelson Mandela Bay and the greater Eastern Cape. It is the biggest digital news platform in this province driven by a diverse and dedicated team of award winning story tellers.
LM: What has been the biggest surprise on finding yourself in the hot seat at The Herald?
NM: Two surprises so far. I was genuinely shocked by the overwhelming support and pride that so many people demonstrated regarding my appointment. How they related to it, how they owned it and what it represented to them sentimentally. That was truly humbling for me.
I have also been surprised by how much this job, contrary to popular belief, is actually about listening, rather than speaking; restraint rather than self-expression.
LM: In most companies succession within normally results in resignations as previous colleagues battle to accept a new leader. How have you managed to keep the team together to accept you as their leader?
NM: So I spent the first 30 days following my appointment having individual conversations with each member of the team, section editors as well as writers. Those conversations were an opportunity for them to express themselves, truly; to speak of every frustration, fear and wish. For me, it was an opportunity to listen and to hear them, to acknowledge at times that their anxiety mattered, their voice is legitimate and their work is valued. Importantly, it was an opportunity for me to ask them to partner with me in this important project that is to shape the future for this organisation. It’s been both a messy and insightful journey. None of us get it right all the time. But it is a journey that has helped all of us to understand why we’re here and crucially, why we must do what we do with excellence.
LM: Now that you are an Editor, what do you miss the most from your role as a journalist?
NM: Hands down, I miss writing! Gosh I miss writing. I have not yet mastered the art of time management which would then allow me to write on a regular basis. I hope to do so soon.
LM: When many of our young people from the Eastern Cape make their move to Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, why did you decide to stay in the Eastern Cape?
NM: I have actually moved between PE and Joburg at different times of my career. This exposed me to amazing growth opportunities which I’ve cherished. But more-so I think I have chosen to be in PE at this stage by en large because I have been blessed enough to grow my career at a remarkable pace while still enjoying arguably the best quality of life without having to make significant trade-offs between my work and family.
LM: Tell us a bit about your Uitenhage roots, your early upbringing, your greatest early influences and your schooling?
NM: So I was born in Uitenhage. My mom was a high school pupil at the time. My paternal grandparents then took us in and raised me. They provided me with the best childhood any black girl living in South Africa in the 80s and 90s could have had. My grandmother was a school principal and my grandfather a blue collar worker for carmakers. They were my first definition of love. They shaped a lot of my foundation and my most basic belief of what matters most – to be true to self, regardless.
LM: You recently helped me with motivating young people who had just passed Matric, one of the interesting things you told them was that it was important to enjoy the stages of life when you are young and having fun. Why is this important and what message were you conveying though those stories?
NM: I believe that young people especially go through a lot in this country, be it at home , school or in their communities. I also believe that they need to be given every opportunity possible to live fully, to experience life responsibly and authentically. Only then can they learn lessons that build character, lessons that empower them to know better and choose better for themselves.
LM: You tell an inspiring story about how a prominent news presenter made you fall in love with journalism. Can you tell our readers about that incident and its significance in your life?
NM: Aah Ms Noxolo Grootboom! What a legend. She was the first woman who, without her knowledge of course, introduced me to the concept of story-telling. Her narration of the funeral of Chris Hani, back in 1993 was the most remarkable thing. I was an 11 year old, sitting on the floor of my gran’s living room, absolutely glued to the TV, watching her tell the story of this incredible man. Through my parent’s tears, the pain I was witnessing, a chord was struck in me that said I don’t know what this is, how to do it, but I know I want to tell stories for a living.
LM: How did you end up in The Herald newsroom, and how do you think your story teaches young leaders and entrepreneurs about persistence, sacrifice and commitment?
NM: So in 2004 I walked into The Herald newsroom to ask for a job as journalist. They didn’t have one, not a paying one anyway. So I said I would volunteer to get experience. They gave me space for a week, and then another 2, then a month, and then another one. Six months later they employed me on a stipend contract and a year late on a permanent basis. Fast forward 14 years, I was appointed the newspaper Editor. I believe that my journey has been both a messy and epic expression of a lesson my grandfather taught me in my childhood – “the world owes you nothing. You need to demonstrate over and over again why it should keep choosing you.”
LM: Many people who may be seen to be successful today sometimes underplay the difficulties they face on their personal and professional journeys, I hope through these conversations with leaders I can show the difficulties on the path to success. What were those difficulties for you during your student days and later in your early years as a junior reporter?
NM: You know Buti I think the #FeesMustFall movement in recent years has encapsulated the long standing struggle of the majority of black students in this country. It is a struggle we knew very well – being in a privileged space such as a university campus and yet lacking, sometimes the very tools required to fit in and function in that space, socially and academically. This became increasingly so for me as both my grandparents and my mother battled ill- health successively throughout my student life and my early career. Add to that the most natural responsibility to have to take care of younger siblings, to shield them as much as possible from what was going on – those moments taught me some valuable lessons about taking ownership of one’s destiny.
LM: What values were instilled you in your upbringing and how have they helped you in your personal and professional life?
NM: To be truthful to my conviction, no matter what. This has helped me understand that regardless of what happens, my legitimacy as a person stands and it is not dependent on circumstances, my failure or success.
LM: How did you meet the love of your life, Lifa Makunga, and how long have you been married now?
NM: So Lifa and I first met while we were students at the then Port Elizabeth Technikon. He was this thin lanky guy on campus but I wouldn’t even give him a second look. We met up again some years later as I began my training at The Herald – he absolutely looked gorgeous. He greeted and passed me and I know I was in trouble. We dated for a little more than two years. One day in the middle of a heated argument, he asked me to marry him. I froze. That summer I was in a white dress, at the altar of the Methodist Church, thinking “girl what on earth are you doing?!” It’s been 11 years. He is absolute magic J
LM: Your young prince, the dapper, Litha Makunga is now 10 years old, how has motherhood changed you? What values are you trying to instill in him?
NM: Haha the dapper! I think motherhood has allowed me to experience love in its purest form. It has taught me to give of myself without reservation. And quite surprisingly perhaps, it has made me much more engaged and invested in the future of our nation than I have ever before. I hope he grows up to be a man who is true to his convictions, one who believes no matter what, he should never betray his conscience.
LM: Given your tough schedule, how do you find time for yourself and time to be with your family?
NM: It’s actually quite tough because of the unpredictable nature of my work. We make it work from day to day. I have been blessed with a husband and a son who deeply care about my wellbeing and I for theirs. So from day to day we help each other carry the responsibilities of home. We are familiar with each other’s routine and therefore we are able to accommodate each other from day to day. But perhaps, most important we are learning not to be hard on ourselves. We are learning to be present in moments when we are together, to make the best of them and to forgive ourselves when we feel inadequate or overwhelmed.
LM: Women were always given a false choice, you can either be a great professional, or a doting mum or a loving wife, or a successful entrepreneur – women like you are flipping that script and not only arguing but showing that if you want to have all of these, it is possible? Tell us why this is important for young leaders and entrepreneurs who are women?
NM: I honestly believe that I would not be where I am without my family. They are the anchor that empowers me to thrive. But I need to be clear here – I am not saying that women must be married to be successful. I am saying I believe women have to have strong, unwavering emotional support in order thrive. How that support is packaged will of course differ for all of us. The common thread here, in my view, is that the very basis of our success has got to be sound mental health and emotional well-being. I believe that it is when these are in place that we are able to truly reach our potential in the most fulfilling way.
LM: We may have made some progress since 1994, but South Africa remains a patriarchal society – How have you managed to carve a personal and professional journey in such an environment and what lessons can you give to young leaders and entrepreneurs?
NM: I am actually quite encouraged by the national conversation unfolding in South Africa (and the world) regarding patriarchy and how it systemically shaped our world. I firmly believe that slowly but surely, women are beginning to shape their own world. We are no longer waiting to be invited to seat on the edge of the table. We walk in knowing precisely who we are, what we’re worth and what we’re here to do. This did not happen by chance. It took strength and conviction. This is why, in my view, it is vitally important that we allow younger women to know that their voice is legitimate – that they can speak their truth to power and they deserve to be heard.
LM: There is growing awareness of the scourge of violence against women and children in our society, in the light of the “ Me Movement “ do you think there is enough societal awareness and media spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace in South Africa?
NM: No. I don’t think so. And this is because it is easy to point out, for example, a victim of gender based violence when you see her bleeding or dead. It is however (so far) not as easy to do the same, when she demonstrates no physical signs of harm. This is precisely what we need to change. We need to create spaces that are both physically and emotionally safe for women – regardless of where they are. We need to create spaces where women set their own boundaries and rules of engagement. Corporates especially must be spaces where women define for themselves what are acceptable norms as far as interpersonal relations.
LM: There is growing criticism of the media in South Africa and across the world, from President Donald Trump calling the media “ the enemy of the people”, and statements from political parties directly naming individual journalists by name. At the same time, some media houses, have had to retract and apologize for stories that have proved to be false. Is there a future for the media, does the media accept responsibility for its impact on others and how can societies navigate through these difficulties?
NM: Most definitely I believe there is a future in the media. Of course our industry, like any other, continues to evolve. But journalism remains a crucial part of our democracy. In the last two years, especially, our integrity as an industry has been on trial – and rightfully so. Over the years some of us acted with impunity and betrayed public trust. The consequences of such actions have been devastating for those concerned and our country as a whole. And for that we had to be held accountable, as an industry and individuals. This is why many newsrooms, including ours, have begun long and difficult conversations to strengthen our internal controls to ensure that we do our work with integrity – and when we fail we are held accountable. Of course demagogues such as Trump and others closer to home have used our failures to enforce a narrative that seeks to delegitimise the media and its role in democracies. South Africans must also be vigilant to these sinister motives.
LM: On the flip side, we have had amazingly courageous journalism that have exposed rampant looting of state resources over the last 10 years. This courage is epitomized by the late Mandy Rossouw who exposed the Nkandla building at the home of Former President Zuma. How do you lead your journalists to pursue the truth with vigor whilst being mindful of the rights of those being investigated?
NM: Fact check! Fact check! Fact check! This, as well as proper record keeping is the most basic concept of journalism. Indeed our work becomes tricky in a volatile political environment where those with sinister interests are always trying to use us to sway public opinion. But at the end of the day our integrity is our only currency.
LM: We are entering an election period, this will be your first as an Editor, how do you think the media should approach such a volatile and highly charged atmosphere and give the voters messages from the political parties for them to make their choice?
SM: So for the longest time, I have always tried (and not succeeded much) to place the citizen at the centre of our election coverage. As the media in general, we often become obsessed with the strong men and women who lead political parties. Of course they matter, however I believe if we miss the opportunity to tell the South African story in its most nuanced and granular detail that shapes voter behavior. I believe our job as he media in this election will be to assess to message of political parties and their capacity against the prevailing realities of our country. Only when we do this, I believe we can facilitate a constructive and sober conversation that empowers voters to make informed decisions.
LM: With the advent of social media, and digital platforms, is there still room for newspapers? How do you hope to lead The Herald in the digital era?
NM: Believe it or not, there are readers who still want their newspaper nicely curated and delivered to their gate every morning. I am eternally grateful to these readers. However it has become clear that more and more people are consuming our content online. For us this has meant that we have had to adapt our business model, to make massive investments in the digital space, to attract skills and use relevant technologies in order to meet the innovation needs and consumption patterns of our readers. It’s both challenging and loads of fun!
LM: In your personal life, how do you deal with the hostility and animosity that arises from the stories your newspaper has to run that exposes incompetence, malfeasance and corruption in the Metro and in the broader Eastern Cape?
NM: Haha! So my work requires me to engage a lot with people I disagree with, people who are angry because their thieving is exposed etc. I engage always, but only within the boundaries of acceptable behavior. As a general rule – and my colleagues know this – I never ever engage toxicity, aggression or any other projective behavior that requires me to help you shoulder your animosity. Of course I may come home and vent but then I move on. I will not help them carry their contempt.
LM: Looking back at 2018, what story, covered by The Herald, gave you the most hope about your City/Province and which one made you to feel more despondent about your City/Province?
NM: I think there has not been one particular story per se. Our body of work around the political and economic story of Nelson Mandela Bay is both a source of despair and hope for me. Despair in that we have witnessed how a city with so much potential can be systemically broken down in the fight to serve the interests of a few elite. Having said that, this story also gives me hope in that the very reason we have been able to tell it, to expose the rot, is precisely because there are men and women in the system who are willing to do all they can to ensure that the truth comes out and those who do wrong are held to account. These are the heroes on whose shoulders we stand.
LM: Where do you want to see your newspaper at the end of 2020?
NM: I’d like to see us grow and evolve as a platform that uses innovation to deliver the best possible journalism to the people of this region.
LM: What would tell your 17 year old self ?
NM: Be patient with yourself. Mom is right, you are good enough!
LM: Thank you so much Sisi, I am sure my readers will truly appreciate your personal and professional journey and your broad perspectives?
NM: Thank you very much Buti, I truly appreciate this opportunity.