Distinguished journalist, producer, radio and TV presenter, Redi Tlhabi, shares her thoughts with Nikki Temkin on cathartic writing, living authentically and juggling the balls of her multi-faceted life.
“People have taught me that our presence must fulfil a bigger purpose in our community,” says Tlhabi. These are not just empty words intoned to seem compassionate or provide a certain persona to the world. Tlhabi really is living her truth. A ubiquitous presence in our media, her Sunday Times column (never sugar coated) is read by millions and and every day 258 000 people tune into her radio show on 702 and Cape Talk. She has hosted a variety of news programmes on SABC, eNCA and presented her own TV show Redi on Mzansi Magic. She was also one of the main anchors for the 2004 general election and inauguration coverage.
Tlhabi has become recognised for her caring, compassion and her ability to cut through the extraneous to get to the heart of the matter, unpacking and articulating real issues affecting South Africans. On her interactive radio show, listeners have free reign to use the platform to discuss any issues or topics from parenting and politics to health issues and the environment.“I love highlighting stories that reflect personal endurance, tenacity and commitment. I think hearing how other humans beings successfully navigated treacherous paths is inspiring. People are moved by personal triumph despite adversity,” she explains.
Walking the walk
The multi-talented presenter is particularly proud of taking her broadcasting career to an international level with television and radio appearances on the BBC. Until recently she hosted a weekly television programme South 2 North on Al Jazeera. Notable work on the show included interviews with Christine Lagarde, David Cameron and former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. Working alongside Christiane Amanpour as well as Jon Snow in providing African insight for the UK Channel 4 coverage of the historic G8 Summit in Gleneagles, was another highlight. Over and above her broadcasting work, she’s currently working towards her Masters degree in English Literature at UJ (University of Johannesburg).
“I always wanted to work in the media and would often hold up a deodorant can and pretend it was a microphone. I imagined myself interviewing newsmakers and that is what I have ended up doing!” she says. One has the distinct feeling that Tlhabi accomplishes whatever she sets her mind to and all with her philosophy of: Keep trying and wear a smile while you do it.
“I admire different qualities in different people. Often it’s people I read about or interview at a professional level. I’m drawn to tenacity, for instance that of the late Nobel prize Laureate Dr Wangari Maathai. Her work wasn’t glamorous but her influence in grassroots agriculture and sustainable development is legendary, explains Tlhabi, who also respects the thankless job done by community workers operating under difficult circumstances to make a difference in the lives of the community.
Many have started NGOs, libraries, vegetable gardens, sports fields, counselling services without funds that should, in her view, be provided by the government. “Every day is a struggle for them to stay alive. Others are ordinary citizens who are collecting school shoes and sanitary towels for young girls,” says Tlhabi.
As chairwoman of Ivory Africa, Tlhabi herself strives to align the work to fill the bigger needs of society where she sees them, but qualifies this by saying, “I hope it is making a difference but I am uncomfortable with the ‘look at me I am doing good deeds’ or ‘take a picture of me while I do some charity work.’ I don’t talk about it, I just do it.” For Tlhabi it’s about integrity in all she does. “Commit to the principle of truth. Speak for the voiceless and represent their reality,” she says.
Catharsis through writing
Tlhabi’s talent seems to know no limits – the fact that she says she has never suffered from a crisis of confidence must boost her ability to achieve things in various spheres. The possibility of negative criticism also does not really faze her. “If it is constructive, I reflect on it, if it’s destructive, I don’t get destroyed,” she says.
In 2013, she published her first book, Endings and Beginnings: A Story of Healing. The memoir recounts her life as an eleven-year-old girl involved in an uncomfortably close relationship with a much older neighbourhood gangster. The broader themes reflect sexual violence and its impact on families. It went on to win the prestigious Sunday Times Alan Paton award for non-fiction literature and is currently being turned into a screenplay for a film.
“I had a story to tell and the journey was cathartic. In writing a personal memoir, I not only learnt a lot about myself but also about the society that raised me. I came face to face, once again, with its strengths and heartbreaking dysfunction. I was reminded of the trauma that many around me experienced and how that can go a long way in explaining and understanding the role of the family in building or breaking a society,” she says.
Her feeling is that the South African publishing landscape is exploding, an indication of growing confidence in our own voices. She actively supports literacy projects and participated in the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Optimism even in chaos
“I believe in pushing myself and living authentically,” says Tlhabi who is most concerned about the extreme levels of sexual violence in the country. Her advocacy work includes organising a march to South Africa’s biggest taxi rank in protest against women and girls being harassed and abused by taxi drivers. She consistently uses her platform to challenge the violent expression of male power in our society.
“It’s horrific. I hate the brutality of it and our apathy. Thank goodness the law on sexual violence is solid. However, it cannot be implemented without good detective work. Cases collapse before they even reach the courts and many rapists roam free, ready to brutalise women and children again,” she says.
Although she feels strongly about the harsh realities of daily life in South Africa, socially and politically, Tlhabi considers herself to be a positive person. “My worst habit has to be impatience and my best quality is my optimism, I always believe there’s a way out and that bad moments don’t last forever so vasbyt and ride the waves.”
Finding a way to juggle all the balls of her life is a work in progress – she made headlines in 2014 for ‘daring’ to breastfeed her now 21-month-old daughter while live on air during her show.
“I’m constantly on the move but am hoping for some respite, one day. Maybe things will slow down. For now. I just focus on what I need to do and try to do it to the best of my ability. I take bite sizes out of life. They are easier to chew,” she explains, revealing that her handbag holds pink lip gloss, a Kindle and notebook. Tlhabi’s relaxation is reading and running first thing in the morning to keep fit and training for marathons in between juggling her various media platforms.
“Yes, I feel a sense of responsibility,” she explains, “because I’m a human being who lives in an imperfect society, I try to make a positive difference. Not because I’m in
the media, but because it is the right thing to do.”
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