Independent financial journalist, TV producer and radio presenter Siki Mgabadeli talks to Nikki Temkin about self-belief, overcoming chauvinism and “nonsense TV”.
“You need a strong sense of self – without that, you will doubt yourself and your potential,” says Siki Mgabadeli whose many skills have propelled her to the top of the mainly male- dominated field of financial journalism. This feat cannot be underestimated. In fact, she’s been quoted as saying that she has had to work ten times harder than her male colleagues to prove herself and was often patronised. “When I first started out (in about 2001), there were very few women financial journalists, so it was quite common to walk into a financial results presentation and be the only female journalist there. Sometimes in an interview with a CEO, he’d ask if I understood or whether he should get me more information. I hadn’t seen this happen with my male counterparts,” she explains.
Overcoming the extreme patriarchy of her chosen field, Mgabadeli’s illustrious career has included roles as Business Editor at Power FM, host of eNCA’s controversial TV show The Big Debate, anchor of Morning Talk and Market Update on SAfm and etv’s current affairs show Morning Edition; Executive Economics Editor at SABC, co-anchor of SABC3’s Africa Inc and Senior Business News Anchor at CNBC Africa. She’s also a highly sought-after moderator and facilitator at various international conferences and anchors the annual GSM Association’s World Congress in Barcelona as well as other summits. She’s written a column for the Sunday Independent and has won a variety of awards for her journalism including the Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year award (TV News Category) and the Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year award.
Right now, she’s enjoying presenting both eNCA Moneyline and the SAfm Market Update with Moneyweb. “I love being able to speak to so many different people on different platforms about why the economy matters to them,” she explains.
No shortcuts to the top
Mgabadeli herself seems surprised at her own almost inadvertent success. “I hadn’t thought about being in journalism until my Matric English teacher thought I should consider it because I loved reading and writing. My grandmother was a writer, she wrote radio dramas for the then Radio Xhosa (now Umhlobo Wenene) and she encouraged me to pursue a journalism degree.” Mgabadeli’s mother taught her that there is no substitute for hard work.
She was headed for print journalism until she fell hard for broadcasting while working at Rhodes Music Radio. Her penchant for financial journalism only came while interning at Summit TV (now Business Day TV) in 2001 where she ended up presenting African Business Tonight and becoming deputy news editor. “It’s all been a bit of accidental luck that’s led me here,” she says humbly, crediting a number of people for guiding her career including Benedicta Dube and Stephen Gunnion to Athol Bolleurs – all at Summit TV. “Working at the SABC taught me to work hard to stand out in an organisation full of people all trying to make a name for themselves,” she says.
There have been times where Mgabadeli admits to lacking in confidence. “When I was asked to take over Morning Talk on SAfm for example, I said no. I didn’t think I could do talk radio, but my then executive producer Buli Tyawa saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And she was right. The five years on Morning Talk were among the best of my career and they gave me confidence to tackle a big show like The Big Debate,” she explains.
It hasn’t all been rose petals for Mgabadeli. Not only has she had to struggle to prove her worth as a financial journalist in what’s considered a male terrain but she’s also dealt with sexual harassment. Forced to leave a job because her employer stood in the perpetrator’s corner, she’s had more than her fair share of career lowlights. If she could send a message to her younger self it would be: “You’re smarter and stronger than you think. Ignore the noise and just put in the hard work. And don’t take no for an answer.”
Respecting the value of women
The kind of women that Mgabadeli looks up to range from “Those who took a stance and refused to be treated like second class citizens and the mothers who looked after their families while their husbands, daughters and sons crossed the border to join MK; to those who raise families as breadwinners and single mothers and those who run small and big businesses.” But, she also credits Thuli Madonsela for teaching her that standing up for what is right will always be fashionable and Yvonne Chaka Chaka for showing her how to be adaptable and dynamic in her career and to give back.
Entrenched within the media industry in South Africa, she’s particularly well- positioned to comment on how it’s doing in terms of representing women. “We do well at celebrating successful women and their journeys. However, we also have a tendency to shame women for their choices, particularly celebrities. We shame women for their bodies, their choice to have or not have children, what they wear etc. This is not limited to local media,” she says.
She also believes that we need to build more females to take over newsrooms and broadcasters. According to her, an environment is needed where there are no ‘women only’ and ‘men only’ categories in the media. “If a woman wants to be a rugby writer, she should be given the space to be the best rugby writer she can be,” says Mgabadeli. She adds, “I think in South Africa, we often don’t value experience. When you get older as a journalist people always ask when you’re moving on and getting a PR job. I plan to be a journalist for as long as I live.” In the financial and economic sector, Mgabadeli would like to see an increased amount of commentators. “But, they also need to come to the party and put their hands up,” she asserts.
Multi-tasking is for the birds
Social investment is important to Mgabadeli who says, “Empathy is important as it humbles you when you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Her thinking is that South Africa needs to move towards more social entrepreneurship as it’s been shown to not only enhance society but has a positive impact on those living in poverty. She is certainly playing her part as the chair and trustee of literacy organisation FunDza. “I believe that reading is a fundamental pillar of education. Reading books influences choices and enhances critical and creative thinking. I started reading from a very young age and still enjoy it today,” she says.
When she’s not reading, Mgabadeli who may be described by her friends as “someone loyal who gets up to mischief every now and again” is watching “nonsense TV” and travelling. She admits that she can’t remember the last time she looked inside her fridge and never leaves home without a pen, notebook (the paraphernalia of a true journo) and headache tablets. She doesn’t believe in a universal balance of all aspects of life and claims not to be able to multitask.
“We all prioritise that which is important at a specific time. I concentrate on one thing at a time, do it well and then move on,” she says. What’s evident is that Mgabadeli relishes her work. In fact, she considers it not to be a job, but rather “a lifestyle that pays the bills” proving that women need not be squashed into any specific box when it comes to a career in the media.
This story was first published in the August 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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