Growing up in Butterworth in the Transkei, her 73-year old grandmother Victoria Matolengwe’s constant chit-chat and the radio (which was always on) was the only means of understanding the world, says Asanda Magaqa. “I remember when the ANC was unbanned, how people were keen for information and updates. I remember how much this meant to people and from then on, I wanted to be the person informing people of such events.”
She started telling the South African story as an intern at Umhlobo Wenene FM in 2004, where she became the anchor/presenter of the SABC station’s current-affairs show, “Laphum’ikhwezi”, in 2005. “I experienced so much from the stories I was allowed to do. Communities are remarkably rich with untold stories. Stories aren’t always there for the taking; sometimes you have to go out and find them. That is what set me apart.”
Magaqa believes South Africans need to tell their own stories. “As long as the hunter tells the story, the lion will always be the loser. The lion has to contribute. When someone is not sensitive to one’s background or experience, the story is lacking. It is important that we have our own people, telling our own stories.”
She has won a string of journalism awards, including the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Radio News and Radio Feature award in the Eastern Region in 2006. She went on to win the national award in the Radio News category. In 2007, she won in the Radio Feature category in the Eastern Region again. She is also the recipient of the BBC Africa Radio Award for News Journalist of the Year in Southern Africa in 2007 and of the 2006 SABC News Award in Radio Current Affairs. She smiles when asked about her accolades: “I was just doing my work, not accolade- chasing. I am grateful to be able to witness such big events and to be able to report them.
“The most important thing to remember is that if you focus on reporting the experiences of people, you will always do something right.”
Two of her award-winning stories are also her most memorable. “In the beginning of my career I did a story about a child who had been chained like a dog by her grandmother. We went to the scene, which happened to be during the 16 days of activism (against the abuse of women and children). It was the most extreme case of child abuse I had ever seen. This feature was heart-wrenching, but these experiences all helped me become the journalist I am today.”
This feature landed her the Vodacom Journalist of the Year: Radio News award. She was recognised for her work during the war in Lebanon in 2006, with an SABC News Award in Radio Current Affairs. “When I came home and told my dad (Velelo Magaqa, 61) that I had been chosen to report from a war-zone, he said something that I’ll never forget: ‘People go and people come back’. I grew up in a household where we were made to believe that anything is possible. Birds have to fly, fish have to swim and journalists have to go… so I did.” The experience was daunting. “I recall visiting a lighthouse one day and the next day it had been bombed. But I made it my mission to tell the story of the children of the war. It is a journalist’s responsibility to go where people are suffering and to give accounts of their suffering.”
This story was a “big deal” for people in the Eastern Cape, says Magaqa. “People didn’t realise that stories about warzones could be articulated in their language (Xhosa). So being able to do that, as a junior, was very humbling.”
In 2007, Magaqa left the Eastern Cape to pursue television in Johannesburg. “I had never worked in Jo’burg before. I could only imagine the rich stories I would find here.” She moved to SABC TV News as a journalist and was promoted to anchor of “Asikhulume/Let’s Talk” in January 2008. Six months later she was offered a position at “Special Assignment”.
“My career has been characterised by being thrown into the deep end, but you have to swim. The fact is that to do anything in the world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can. I really grew up with my experience at ‘Asikhulume’. It was the best experience of my career. Essentially I am more of a news person. I am in tune with a story I start, build and re-angle.”
Magaqa thinks she got “smarter” during her time at “Asikhulume”. “I had to work on stories about stuff I was not that clued up about, such as budget speeches and agricultural subsidies. And of course putting on nice clothes and make-up is great too.”
“When presented with the opportunity to move over to become specialist producer at “Special Assignment”, Magaqa was torn. “I was extremely honoured to be given this opportunity, but I felt as though I hadn’t reached my full potential at ‘Asikhulume’ and anchoring will always be close to my heart.”
In the end she took the leap. “Credibility only comes a certain way. This requires specifi c experiences. A journalist needs to cover all issues, from the bread-and-butter to issues right at the top. This taught me resilience. I have learnt not to bow to circumstances but to persevere against all odds.” She adds: “Investigative journalism is a privilege; not many journalists have the opportunity to work on a story for weeks. In order to do a 24-minute documentary, I have to look at every possible angle; I have to exhaust the topic and lay it bare.”
But success at such a young age comes at a price. “I get a lot of flack for being a young woman, and for this reason, I try to be all things to all people. This led to a lot of fatigue early on in my career and a lot of squandered opportunities.” Magaqa was once told that her petite frame would not allow her to have ‘presence’ on the TV screen and that her Model C schooling background would make her unsuitable to present a Xhosa radio current-affairs show. “While I have been presented with all kinds of nonsensical reasons why I cannot have the opportunities I strive for, I remain strong in will to seek to find and not to yield.”
On December 1 (2008) Magaqa moved to the television elections office at the SABC. “I just plan to remain true to the art form and true to my work. Journalists are agents of change and I think this is going to be the best election yet. I am terribly excited to be a part of it.”
There is a lot on the cards for her. “I started on the backfoot, but I’ve always been very clear about what I’m doing and where I want to be. I have a lot of great ideas and there are a lot of opportunities to be had. There is a lot happening in the digital age. I keep questioning how I can be at the forefront of this movement. I also have to keep reporting and I plan to get back in the anchor’s chair at some point.
“I am also very committed to be a force in the media industry… I really admire the likes of (Sunday Sun columnist) Jon Qwelane, (Press Ombudsman) Joe Thloloe and (Mail & Guardian editor) Ferial Haffajee. I hope to be of the same calibre as these journalists one day.”
Magaqa adds, “There will be challenges, but I know what I am here to do. It’s not hard when you report the truth, and not for gain… I feel alive when I report the truth.” Nazley Omar is the content manager of TheMediaOnline (ww.the mediaonline.co.za).
- This profile first appeared in The Media magazine (February 2009).