Pheladi Gwangwa’s earliest childhood memory is of running away from an “alien”…
“I work with so many white people now and there are instances that just take me back to that memory,” she says. “It’s a very funny story.”
She must have been about two or three years old; her mother was bathing her in a plastic tub in a courtyard in the village Ga-Mphahlele, east of Polokwane. When a white man appeared Ã¢Â€Â“ the first she had ever seen Ã¢Â€Â“ the naked Pheladi screamed and ran around outside the courtyard, “because in my view I had just seen an alien”.
Not many things seem to make her want to head for the hills more than 30 years later. At 35, the lawyer by training is station manager of the BBC Africa Radio Awards’ Station of the Year Ã¢Â€Â“ a position that she took to “like a duck to water”. Gwangwa says one of the most difficult things she has had to do in this position is to appraise breakfast show host, John Robbie.
“I say this to his face, and I’ve said it publicly. He is very gutsy and combative by nature. “I love that when he’s on air Ã¢Â€Â“ when he is asking someone a difficult question and they try to dodge it and he just doesn’t let it go. “But I hate it when he does that with me! He questions every comment (during appraisal).”
Gwangwa admits it would be unfair to expect Robbie to not be who he is off air. “He holds no grudges and neither do I Ã¢Â€Â“ I think that’s why we have such good relationship. “Which is what we’re about (as a station) Ã¢Â€Â“ you should be able to express your opinion; I may not like it, but you should have the right to say it.”
Gwangwa became interested in media when, as a young attorney in the early nineties, she read about the establishment of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (the predecessor of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa). She became an advisor to one of the regulator’s councillors and, later, head of licensing.
“The more I interacted with the media organisations we were regulating, the more I got interested in their operations. I wanted to understand this beast.” Gwangwa says when she joined Primedia, following a stint at Cell C, she did not find the transition particularly difficult. She admits the “chaos” was “daunting and irritating” at first. “But I think you should be there five to 10 minutes before a show goes on air, or two minutes before the next news bulletin and see the flurry that goes on in the newsroom.
“I liked the unstructured nature of the environment. As a lawyer it’s all about procedure: in how you do things and working within legal principles. “Radio is such a creative space. There is method in the madness and the chaos.”
Gwangwa says her perspective on the commercial realities of broadcasting has changed since leaving the regulator. “For example, when I was at the regulator I thought a commercial licence was a licence to Ã¢Â€Â˜print money’; you get a licence, you can get ads and all that goes to the shareholders’ back pockets. But it’s not like that at all. “A talk radio station is very cost intensive. You have to employ so many people. With such a huge cost base you don’t reap as much profits as I thought they were doing.”
What should the regulator do differently? “I think they need to understand that they are there to make sure competition takes place in a structured environment. They should be enablers, not constrainers.” She says if there was an influx to ICASA from industry, that understanding would exist, but the influx is the other way around. Gwangwa believes the solution is to better resource the regulator (ICASA).
She wants to “retire” at ICASA one day. “I want to impart the knowledge I have gained.” In the station’s future she would like to see “more maturity in the psyche of our listeners; more broad-mindedness and moving towards the common goal”.
“What I think we do well as a station is we have this pocket where we create contents ourselves; then there is this other part Ã¢Â€Â“ the views of listeners. Sometimes I listen to the radio and I cringe. I think: Ã¢Â€Â˜You didn’t say that’.” Gwangwa wants the station to play a part in bringing people in a polarised society together.
“I don’t know if we will be able to achieve it in this generation, but I think we should do our best to achieve that.” She believes mistakes and achievements should be viewed as opportunities to learn. Looking back on her time as station manager (since 2005), Gwangwa says she would have opened herself up more to her staff so that they could have reached a shared understanding sooner than they had, if she had the chance to do things differently.R
She adds: “It’s always difficult Ã¢Â€Â“ especially when you come into an environment where it’s mostly men… they pull stunts to test your level of endurance and your level of maturity.” Gwangwa says they would probably do it to anyone Ã¢Â€Â“ regardless of their gender.
Based on statistics about the number of women compared with men in high positions in corporate South Africa, Gwangwa believes that there is still a long way to go in promoting women in business Ã¢Â€Â“ not just in media. Who is Pheladi Gwangwa outside the office? You are likely to find Gwangwa, who recently took up running, preparing to go to races at 4.30am on most weekends, or shopping for books with her daughter, Ntsimedi, who is “7 going on 17”.
The other finalists in this year’s Vodacom Women in The Media Awards were: Karima Brown, political editor of Business Day, Khanyi Dhlomo, managing director of Ndalo Media and Wendy Knowler, consumer editor for Independent Newspapers.
This profile first appeared in The Media magazine (August 2008).