Award-winning journalist Rebecca Davis is equally sagacious and humorous in her coverage of topics ranging from national importance to anecdotes of ordinary South African life. She is a staff writer for the Daily Maverick, has a TV column in the Sunday Times and a notable 28.K followers on Twitter. In 2014 she won the African Story Challenge and this year her much anticipated book, ‘Best White and Other Anxious Delusions’ was published. Rebecca has zero tolerance for sexism, thinks news shouldn’t be boring and believes the good outweighs the bad.
You’ve spent part of your life growing up in Malawi, studying at Rhodes and then Oxford. Career wise you’ve been a fruit packer and worker at a dictionary. Can you elaborate on your journey so far? At what point did you realise you wanted to be a journalist?
I grew up in Malawi under the dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, where I learned early just how differently girls could be treated to boys. Under Banda’s rule, females were forbidden from wearing shorts or trousers in public. To make up for it, I’ve been living in jeans ever since. After lingering as long as I could at universities in South Africa and the UK, I was faced with the daunting task of actually getting a job. I graduated from Oxford in the same month that Lehman Brothers collapsed, heralding the start of the global financial crisis. It wasn’t a good time to be making a career. I spent a few years doing everything from ushering in a cinema, dressing up as a Christmas elf in shopping centres, and, eventually, working at the Oxford English Dictionary. I also started writing, both as a blogger and on a freelance basis for magazines. When I came home to South Africa in 2011, it was just at the right time. The online journalism project that I most wanted to work for – the Daily Maverick – was just expanding, and I persuaded editor Branko Brkic to take a chance on me. He was mad enough to do so, and now he’s stuck with me.
How has your personal identity within the South African landscape shaped your journalistic pursuits?
Being a gay woman in South Africa certainly influences the issues that are closest to my heart, and in particular the ongoing struggle for gender equality. Of course, as a privileged white woman it is very hard to make the case that I find myself personally, materially discriminated against. Nonetheless, sexism pervades South African society: in politics, in the media, in advertising, in popular culture and so on.
Currently, there’s a lot of furore regarding the state of the country’s media. What in your opinion is not receiving enough coverage and why do think this is?
As with media all over the world, there’s a constant tension between producing in-depth social justice reporting, and the need to turn a profit. Sadly, the two often don’t go together. People complained about the amount of attention given to the Oscar Pistorius trial, for instance, but the sad truth is that that reporting broke records for public interest. For a long time, the most-read article on one South African news website was a story about a woman who had sex with a Jack Russell. It’s easy to say that the media feeds the public trivial nonsense, but the reality is that often it’s public appetites that feeds the production of that trivial nonsense.
I’d love to see more attention paid to the struggles of ordinary people, and I’d also like more reporting on issues of gender beyond violence. But newsrooms are shrinking, budgets get smaller every year, and journalists are under pressure to churn out the greatest number of pieces in the shortest possible time. That’s not to say that we, as media, shouldn’t try to do better. We should. But we also need support from the public – evidence that the public is willing to pay for high-quality online content, for instance.
In 2014, you won the African Story Challenge for reporting on the state of mine workers’ health. What was the process like and what drew you to this particular topic?
The issue of mineworkers’ health is both poignant and deeply unjust. These are men who have spent years working underground for a pittance, who have developed chronic lung disease which renders them incapable of continuing work, and who are then essentially sent home to die. While they produce billions in profits for the mines, attempts to win financial compensation for their disease from the mines usually ends in failure. It’s not just men who suffer – it’s very much women too, who are left to shoulder the burden of supporting families alone due to their husbands’ ill-health. All in all, it’s a story of grotesque corporate neglect stretching back over a century.
Of all the subjects you’ve covered so far, which have made the most impact on you and why?
Mineworkers’ disease was a big one for me because I was given the time to explore the issue in depth – unusual in this era of fast-paced newsrooms. I’ll never forget covering the 2011/2012 Western Cape farmworkers’ strikes, because the scenes were chaotic, the stakes felt very high and in some instances journalists were targeted. Lastly, begrudgingly, I have to list the Pistorius trial. I spent so many weeks in that courtroom that I’ll probably need deep hypnosis to erase the memories.
How does creativity form part of your daily writing process, if at all?
It depends what kind of writing you’re doing. I try to inject a bit of personality into everything I write because otherwise I bore myself, and I’m lucky to write for a website which supports that. If you write hard news for a daily newspaper, sometimes you don’t get that privilege. But fundamentally, I don’t think news has to be boring, or feel like homework to read.
Wit plays a large role in your writing. What are your observances about South African humour?
I don’t think you can really generalise about a “national” sense of humour as such – unless you look at the ongoing supremacy of Leon Schuster at the box office, and conclude we’re all nuts for slapstick and blackface. I think South Africans like to laugh, though. At themselves and at each other. There’s a surprising amount of laughter in Parliament, though admittedly quite a lot of it is mocking.
Your book ‘Best White and Other Anxious Delusions’ has been well received. What inspired you to write it and have there been any interesting responses that took you by surprise?
I was approached by my publisher, Pan Macmillan, to write a book. They weren’t very prescriptive about what form it would take. I write a lot of very serious, earnest stuff every week for the Daily Maverick about politics and gender and society and I realized that what I really wanted was to write something that would make people laugh. Personally, I’m sick of books by political analysts promising some unique understanding of the soul of the country, or predicting the imminent collapse of South Africa as we know it. I wanted to write a collection of humorous essays telling stories or recording random observations about life. Essentially, I hoped reading it would be like sitting down with someone and having a glass of wine. Responses generally have been exceptionally kind. I think there are those people who see the title and think it is either some hectic treatise about race relations, or a white supremacist’s how-to guide. Thankfully neither is the case.
Technology makes social media activism an easy pursuit and provides the platform for feminists to highlight their concerns, yet at the same time it’s also a fertile ground for misogynistic abuse. What are your thoughts regarding feminism in the digital age and the experience of this in reality?
Social media is an amazing channel for rallying interest groups, and this is as true for feminism as any other cause. Of course, much of it is ‘slacktivism’ – change your avatar and end rape – but it’s still heartening to see the way pro-feminist campaigns circulate, particularly generated by young women. The ugly side of the coin, of course, is the misogyny that flourishes in this space. When the internet took off, some people imagined that it would be this utopian space where men and women would be able to participate as equals, freed of the normal social currents in the real world. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out like that. Men get abused online as well as women, but women tend to get gendered, sexualized abuse in the way that men don’t. In other words: insults to women tend to be preoccupied with the fact that they are women, because being a woman is automatically inferior. On balance, I’d like to think the good outweighs the bad. That while women do get harassed, bullied and stalked online, there are also unprecedented possibilities for women to take up public platforms and express autonomy on the internet.
What are some of the consequences of being unashamedly vocal in your beliefs?
Basically, that you have to come to terms with the fact that some people will hate you. This is hard if, like me, you want to be liked. It particularly sucks when you write something and people whose opinions you really respect disagree with it. I don’t really care when sexist assholes tell me I’m an idiot female. I do care very deeply when someone I respect tells me I’ve got it horribly wrong.
You have an impressive following on Twitter. How has social media influenced the way you work as a journalist? What do you love or loathe about the medium?
Many journalists are expected to live-tweet events and press conferences these days, which adds an element of stress and effort to the job. (I’m fortunate because there’s no such expectation on me. I’m also allowed to tweet what I like, because we’re sort of anarchic like that, whereas many other South African media organisations have increasingly tight social media policies.) The major way in which Twitter has changed the game for journalists is that “breaking news” is no longer something media outlets really do. Far more often, it’s what people on Twitter do. So your value as a journalist increasingly has to be premised on something additional to speed or proximity to changing events: providing analysis, deeper context, or a different take, for instance. I find Twitter very funny, particularly when South African users all pile on to a particular topic. Obviously I hate it when people tweet evil shit to me, but then I block them with an effortless twitch of my finger and move on with my life.
You spend copious amounts of time in parliament. How much agency and urgency do you think high-ranking women in government really have when it comes to creating progressive policies that would improve women’s lives in South Africa? It seems that despite having a fair number of female MPs, many women still suffer huge injustices on a daily basis. What are your thoughts on this and do you think having a female president would change things?
It’s definitely a fallacy to think that female leaders automatically result in either improved policies for women or greater numbers of other women in leadership. History has taught us that repeatedly. But equally, it’s absolutely vital that we get numbers of women in politics up. One reason is the power of role-modelling: if young women never see women in power, they grow up not considering it as an attainable goal for themselves. US states which have visible female political candidates experience higher levels of political engagement among women.
People also want to see people who look like them representing them. Can a man truly and authentically represent the interests of women, if they don’t know what it’s like to live like a woman? If they don’t know, for instance, how certain areas of town where men feel safe make women feel uncomfortable? Some men obviously can represent women very well – in some cases, better. But there’s also international research to suggest that female MPs lobby harder for issues like parental leave, childcare and gender equality laws.
Lastly, what kind of contribution would you like to make to your industry, and on a personal level?
If I make a few people think, laugh, or both, that seems more than enough to me. I’d also like to be remembered as someone who swore quite a lot in public.
Follow Rebecca on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Jeanine Cameron