South Africa

Ferial Haffajee: Editor as Newsmaker

For South Africa’s first female editor of a major newspaper, being  a high achiever is nothing new.

Ferial Haffajee was only 22 when, in 1990, she received a daunting honor. Nelson Mandela had just been freed after 26 years of imprisonment, and Haffajee was picked to be on a panel of reporters that would question the future president in his first television interview.

Fourteen years later, as South Africa prepares to celebrate the decade of democracy that began with Mandela’s inauguration on May 10, 1994, Haffajee has been appointed editor of Johannesburg’s influential weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper.

Founded in 1985 as a voice of the anti-apartheid movement, the Mail & Guardian has since become a mainstream paper with a reputation for feistiness. “Mail & Guardian editors are generally held to be rabble-rousers,” Haffajee told World Press Review. Editing the paper, she said, is “a challenge...I look forward to with some trepidation and a lot of relish.”

The daughter of garment workers, Haffajee grew up in the working-class Johannesburg suburb of Bosmont and attended the University of the Witwatersrand. One day, Mail & Guardian founding editor Anton Harber spoke to her class “about this amazing paper,” she recalls, and she thought, “It would be lovely to work there one day.”

After graduating, Haffajee realized her dream by becoming a trainee at the paper, then called the Weekly Mail. Stints in radio and television journalism followed before she won a job as a political writer at the Financial Mail, where she rose to the rank of managing editor before returning to the Mail & Guardian as an associate editor.

As the paper’s editor, Haffajee says, she will increase coverage of African politics in a year in which six southern African nations go to the polls. She also wants to publish more stories on domestic violence and rape—legacies of a past, she says, in which “powerless men trained their alienation and anger on the women around them.”

Her appointment comes in the wake of several scandals in South Africa’s newspaper industry. Two editors, the Sunday Times’ Mathatha Tsedu and Vusi Mona of City Press, were dismissed after a reporter from the Sunday Times leaked a story to City Press alleging that the national director of public prosecutions was an apartheid spy. Also, columnist Darrel Bristow-Bovey and South African Elle editor Cynthia Vongai were dismissed under accusations of plagiarism.

As a result, says Haffajee, South Africa’s newspapers “need to pin our code of ethics to our computer screens.” She places hope in the Mail & Guardian’s energetic young trainees, who, she told, will become “tomorrow’s leaders, pretty much in the way we were.”