M-Net’s leadership has been restructured and Yolisa Phahle has been appointed to head the South African operation. Editor of The Media, Peta Krost Maunder, talks to her.
M-Net South Africa has a new CEO. This is a big deal but it has been kept rather low key in the media. And when I met the impressive new boss, Yolisa Phahle, I realised that she is a low-key kind of CEO.
As much as she is passionate about M-Net and no stranger to being in the forefront, she is dressed in jeans, has no airs and graces and comes across as relaxed and humble, with an easy smile.
Those within M-Net are very excited that she was selected for this position because she has proved her mettle since 2005 with innovative local programming on new channels.
Phahle is well respected in the company for being responsible for launching the popular Mzansi Magic and Mzansi Magic Music, and introducing Mzansi Wethu and Mzansi Bioskop channels in 2013, with the help of her team.
Phahle was born in England to South African parents in exile. Being part of a minority racial group in England came with its own set of challenges. Having a surname that people couldn’t pronounce didn’t make it easy for her as a young girl.
“I dreaded the beginning of each year at school when teachers would say our names for the first time and they got to me and weren’t able to pronounce mine, invariably saying ‘fail’. I got teased for that. These days I still get a thrill when my name is correctly pronounced.”
It wasn’t easy being one of only four non-white children in the school. But, she says, her parents taught her that she just had to work hard and come top of the class and then no one would pick on her. And so she did, consistently, and it worked.
At home, she was raised in a community of exiles that included acclaimed musician Hugh Masekela and former managing editor of The Star, Arthur Maimane, among others. “I was proud of my family and what they represented and the choices they made. They had strong moral values that I have always respected.”
Phahle visited South Africa a number of times during her childhood and felt at home here. She saw herself as both British and South African.
A talented musician, she trained at Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a violinist and piano player, and launched a career in pop and rock music when she and some friends stumbled on an ad for ‘black classically trained string players’. “There weren’t very many of us that fitted the bill so we easily got the job.” This led to her playing music with a number of stars and leading the high life while traveling the world, making music.
“It was great, but I kept thinking this is fine for a 22-year-old but it can’t last forever,” she says. She started looking for a media job, securing a trainee position at the BBC World Service and worked her way up from the bottom. “At the beginning, I would have to go through the rubbish bins in the editing suites to find old tapes to see which could be recycled. Talk about starting at the bottom!”
By 2004, she was a senior producer at BBC 6 Music when she requested a ’career break’ – an opportunity for parents of young children to take a year off and resume a position at the BBC afterwards. Her children were then seven and three years old and she and her children’s father were granted this leave and came to South Africa where the rest of her family had already settled.
She was offered a position as general manager at M-Net’s Channel O in 2005 and she took it, having decided to stay in South Africa.
“I was taken by how people at M-Net were really open to new ideas and supportive in the work environment. I would say that M-Net is on a par with the BBC in terms of calibre of television company, but here there is far more space to innovate and try new things,” says Phahle. “I really enjoy working for this company.”
Her appointment to CEO comes as her predecessor and direct boss, Patricia van Rooyen, takes on the position of sub-Saharan CEO.
Other appointments were of the first regional director for M-Net in West Africa, Wangi Mba-Uzoukwu, and first regional director for East Africa, Michael Ndetei. The idea is to increase focus on dedicated locally produced television content for each region.
“Like all great companies, M-Net looks to the future and sees that excellent local content is vital to drive audiences and to be relevant to them to keep them interested,” says Phahle. “To do justice to these goals, we needed to put resources there to meet the objectives. So someone had to focus on our local content and I had been doing that so I was considered.”
She applauds M-Net for growing people from within the company as much as it can, this way retaining the knowledge while still bringing in people with expertise the company doesn’t have.
Phahle says she believes a thriving arts, culture and film industry is important for the national psyche of a country. “We have the opportunity to make a real contribution to the television industry by increasing opportunities in programme creation. We also play our part in traineeships and internships and are looking at growing this element and finding better ways of doing this to increase the pool of expertise.”
She also wants to provide more opportunities for previously disadvantaged people in this industry. “We are working hard to make this happen as we see the importance of transformation and our role in it.
“Ultimately our responsibility is to our viewers and meeting their needs and wants. We do our best to leverage technology to streamline viewer feedback. That way we can make changes according to what the public wants and offer them the surprises that will appeal to them.”
In the long term, she would like people to be able to access M-Net content globally and enjoy South African and African stories wherever they are. Expats can already access kykNET and kykNET Musiek in the United Kingdom on TalkTalk television service. “That is just the beginning.”
Phahle is evidently excited about what she can achieve at M-Net and says she believes that so much is possible because the company is run by “brilliant women”.
Phahle say she has learnt a great deal from Van Rooyen, who has been hugely supportive of her work. “She encouraged me to do my MBA,” says Phahle who is mid-way through her post-graduate business degree.
How does Phahle manage two children, study for a degree that is so time consuming people call it the “marriage breaker”, and hold down a top management position at M-Net?
“My parents help a lot and those I work with see those opportunities when I am not here to step up to the plate and fly. I took other advice from Patricia to ‘always employ people who are way smarter than me’ and I do my best to try and keep them.”
Having only recently taken up her new seat, it will be interesting to see what she achieves.
This story was first published in the May 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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