Professor Rachel Jafta literally took a big leap on her birthday last year. She jumped off Lion’s Head in Cape Town, in tandem with a champion paraglider. She screamed, yes, but her main thought was, “If something happens to me, I hope our newspapers get the story first”.
The chairperson of Media24’s board says she isn’t an adrenaline junkie, nor is she afraid of heights – “except I wouldn’t bungee jump off the Storms River Bridge because I’m scared it will shoot up like a catapult and my eyes will pop out” – but she does like to try new things. She says she’s a ‘pank’ – “professional aunt no kids… don’t you love that word?”. With a host of nieces and nephews to keep her “grounded”, she enjoys learning dance moves, practising karate chops, and being dragged off to the Da Vinci Genius Exhibition at the Waterfront as much as she does pondering the future of publishing in South Africa and attending the latest Verdi opera at Artscape.
The day we meet at the Table Bay Hotel followed the release of Naspers’ interim results. The company reported lower full-year earnings after choosing to increase its investment into internet (e-commerce) platforms and digital pay television in Africa. “We have to invest in order to grow faster in the future, “ says Jafta, who took on the role of chairperson of the board in April 2013 after Professor Jakes Gerwel’s death in November 2012. She had been a member of the Media24 board for a decade prior to that. “We’re making a R7-billion investment, taking a long view on the future,” she says.
Naspers turns 100 in 2014 and the centenary of the company – which has become an international force to be reckoned with – has given its board the opportunity to reflect on its history and where it is heading. “The company has grown from being a South African-based mostly print operation into a global power,” says Jafta.
The company’s profits came mostly from its offshore holdings. Is this not a worry? Is South Africa becoming uncompetitive? Jafta, an economist whose speciality is the economics of innovation, says, “We are innovative in certain areas. Look at the Square Kilometre Array telescope (which, by the way, is close to my hometown, Carnarvon). We pulled that off. I think where we fall short is in adapting technology for everyday use. We’re held back by our education and training. I worry that we could do better, that we’re wasting resources and lives.”
Jafta co-founded a non-governmental organisation, Rachel’s Angels Trust, where students attending the University of Stellenbosch – where she is an associate professor of economics – mentor students in grades 11 and 12 and help them develop their academic abilities and enrich their life skills.
“They give me hope,” says Jafta. She grew up in a fruit-picking area of the Western Cape with parents who insisted their children read, and read widely. “We were always the ones sitting under the trees with a book,” she laughs. “You always knew the Jafta children. I still have a stack of books I’m waiting to read. I read in the holidays and I read on planes. And when I retire, I’ll read a lot more!”
The media, she says, has an “incredibly important job to do in South Africa”. And, no, sunshine journalism isn’t the way to redemption. “What I know from experience is that people are savvy. They will see through sunshine journalism. At the same time I do believe we need a balanced approach to news. I hear people say, ‘development stories are boring’. Well, really, it depends how you approach those stories, doesn’t it?”
The media does do a lot of stories on corruption, she says, but publications deliver much more than that. “The media is so much more diverse now. There’s a whole spectrum of thought out there. People who never paid for newspapers are buying them now. I was in Delft recently and people were reading the Son [from the Media24 stable]. I asked what they liked about it and they said, ‘It’s about us. It says things like us.’ The beauty is that we have many voices giving many perspectives now,” she says.
The Daily Sun, another popular tabloid owned by Media24, was recently given short thrift by the press ombudsman for publishing gruesome front-page photographs of victims of violence. “The board is of the view that editors are independent,” says Jafta. “They’ve signed a code of conduct and are committed to abide by that code. They have to weigh up whether to put stories out there. And sometimes, as in the case of Ferial Haffajee and ‘The Spear’ painting, those editors get crucified for the decisions they take.”
Jafta says she reads the Sunday papers every week. And daily she takes in Business Day and Die Burger. She always relishes The Economist. Magazines, she says, are something she enjoys with her sisters and sister-in-law. “If I have a Saturday afternoon off, we’ll have something to eat – my sister-in-law is an incredible cook – and we’ll sit around reading all the mags.”
She has embraced digital and loves Media24’s new app, MyEdit, which sifts through and personalises a choice of content from South African media. “It’s a lot easier to get the content I want with MyEdit,” she says.
At the same time, she believes there is “still life in print” and that strategies on how to adapt print content-wise will become more prevalent. “There are so many possibilities out there,” she says. “I was told about a printing operation in Landvetter Airport in Sweden where you can choose the news you want, and have it printed right there. We will start looking at synergies and convergence. In developing countries, where the internet doesn’t reach, there is growth in newspapers. And we’re watching Warren Buffet very carefully. And the Amazon guy [Jeff Bezos] who bought the Washington Post. I think he’s going to do something there…”
Jafta is quite unusual in that women in director positions on the boards of South Africa’s large media groups are few and far between. The report by the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team pointed this out in its recent research paper on media ownership and diversity. “Diversity is a strategic asset,” she says, “and of course the media companies should make an effort to ensure their boards are diverse. But it’s not that easy. We need to hand pick women and groom them to take these positions. To set targets too high is counter-productive.”
Jafta certainly leads a productive life, what with her professorship, her NGO, her company Econex and her various board positions, but still she finds time to expand her knowledge, particularly her love of all things Italian. Oh, and Earl Grey tea and pink sparkling wine, particularly the one from Boschendal. “Oh, I am a champagne girl,” she laughs. Before shooing me out to get ready to go the opera. Italian, of course.
This story was first published in the January 2014 issue of The Media magazine.