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The Sowetan first female editor: newsroom culture is still ‘patriarchal’

By Nerea Gonzalez

Johannesburg, April 29 (EFE).- In March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, Nwabisa Makunga became the first female editor of South Africa’s iconic The Sowetan newspaper, an industry that has been traditionally dominated by men that has led to a newsroom culture she believes still tends to be “patriarchal”, despite more and more women joining the fold.

“Newsrooms may be led by women, but the cultures are quite masculine and very patriarchal,” Makunga tells Efe in an interview at her newspaper’s Johannesburg offices ahead of World Press Freedom Day 2021, which is celebrated on May 3.

“I think that the challenge we have as women and all of us since it’s not just our job, is to really change those organizational cultures.”

A black woman from Uitenhage, a small town in Eastern Cape province, the director of The Sowetan is no exception in South Africa, a country where quite a few women hold senior positions in the mainstream media.

So Makunga admits that she does not feel as though she has broken a “glass ceiling,” but neither does she feel that newsrooms are egalitarian just yet.

“Even the language that we sometimes use when we report is very patriarchal. It is sometimes misogynistic, it looks down on women. These are things we have to be very frank about and address,” she says.

At 38, Makunga has had a meteoric career that began when she was 11 years old, in the living room of her grandparents’ house, watching the broadcast of the funeral of murdered anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani by South African journalist Noxolo Grootboom, a legend of the profession in her country.

“Listening to her tell the story of this man, who, if I’m honest, I didn’t know at the time, as I was quite young, it sparked something inside me. Not necessarily about broadcasting, but just about telling a South African story, telling it with such authority, with such humility (…) and with a personal touch,” she recalls.

Without having been given time to really familiarize herself with the newsroom, Covid-19 forced the paper to start work remotely, with technology replacing daily routines.

“Things we probably thought we would do in ten years, we managed to do in two weeks,” she says.

The experiment – she believes – went well, even if the challenges are taking their toll.

Fewer people on the streets means fewer copies are sold of The Sowetan, a paper that is traditionally bought by commuters on the go.

In fact, it was born 40 years ago as a platform to give a voice to the oppressed black population under the racist “apartheid” system that ruled the country from 1948 to 1994.

“It is an activism brand, a brand that really fights for the people, for ordinary black South Africans,” says the editor, who believes that in contemporary South Africa, democratic but deeply unequal, the essence of the newspaper remains the same.

With the pandemic, however, The Sowetan’s website has seen traffic grow, a reflection of the great dilemma that the press is currently facing: the role of the paper and how to produce quality journalism on the Internet.

For Makunga the path is clear: “we have to stop obsessing about what platform on which we produce journalism and start obsessing about journalism itself, about saving journalism”.

“All of us are grappling to try to find the answers, but for me it begins with us as a broader society, whether its business, government, truly understanding that we cannot have healthy democracies without quality media”.

Within this framework of opportunity, however, it is necessary to keep an eye on the risk that the Internet and social media carry, according to Makunga, in terms of potential “toxicity” and “harassment” for journalists.

In her opinion, this phenomenon is explained, in part, by the crisis of “trust” and “credibility” in the media, as well as the impact of “fake news”, which she believes should be combated with “media education” and by reinforcing the best journalism.

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