History defied: Women taking charge in the media

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

By Grace Kwinjeh

It was soon after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1982 that veteran journalist Spiwe Kachidza- Mapfumo returned home after completing her media studies in the United States of America.

The International Woman caught up with Spiwe who is back in the Diaspora this time based in Calgary, Canada. Against a background that the world over the media remains a deeply contested territory, the rich, innovative and powerful carrying the day.

Says Spiwe as she recalls her priorities when she got back to Zimbabwe: “ I wanted to get a job. I felt this is the time to find my feet in the media and so I joined the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) in production.”

When Spiwe came back home, it was a journey laced with hope and anticipation that with Ian Smith gone, racial segregation a thing of the past, the majority black Zimbabweans would now start to rebuild the Zimbabwe they fought for, including a women friendly, plural and vibrant media. A media that not only gave them a voice but empowered them – this has not been the case.

Spiwe is soon to embark on a fulling journey, one she does not regret, being one of the pioneer female black journalist in post independent Zimbabwe, breaking into mainstream media, she embraces both the positives and the challenges. However, the last straw when she was at the ZBC, was when it came to covering the much loved First Lady then Mugabe’s wife Sally.

“I remember at one time I wanted to talk to Sally Mugabe, about herself as a woman, living with Robert as a husband. One of my bosses felt that was ridiculous to be taken around her(Sally’s) home, interviewing her.”

It was not a great experience and many female journalists can relate.“ It destroys you as a person. There was more to it, you do not want to look at people as Gods. After a while I decided not worth it. I joined Ziana.” Other female journalists at the time making inroads included Linda Loxton and Ruth Vice.

Spiwe plays her part, even though she leaves again for the Diaspora, among an estimated 4 million Zimbabweans, were her media skills and expertise are now being harnessed in building her local community. This is the story of many female journalists outside Zimbabwe, “ the challenges are high out here to go into broadcasting. It’s easier for locals and the digitalisation of the media. Mainstream media out here is very competitive.”

She has gone full circle the media as at 1982 has not changed much compared to 2019, notwithstanding she is among a generation of courageous women who dared to dream going into spaces that at the time had little respect or recognition of women.

The Quill club for instance has not changed much. “ It takes a while to build a social network of sources. Most female journalists did not go to the Quill Club. Most revellers were male journalists. It was hard to survive in the Quill Club, how they viewed women, the language just the language. It was a boys club bashing women. I am hoping 30 years down the line this has changed.”

Spiwe also laments sexual harassment in the newsroom.

As Spiwe’s story unravels it echoes the voices of many women in the media, their lamentations, joys and pains, the media remains largely a boys world.

When asked why then the female journalists who have matured in the profession are not starting their own media houses be it print or broadcasting, Spiwe responds: “There should not be any half measures, we continue to sideline ourselves. I do not think our greatest assert is to create these newspapers for women. How do we make inroads ? There has to be a paradigm shift.”

“We do not want to have a pity party or what do you expect it’s a women’s thing.”

“ Though as a veteran I have been impressed with your group (1990’s), Grace Mutandwa, Sarah Tikiwa, Eunice Mafundikwa, Faith Zaba, I take my hat off we watched you rise.”

The media has the communication power influence to shape how societies think or respond to critical situations. The one who controls the media, controls the reproduction of ideas and is therefore is very powerful, tragically in Zimbabwe all major media houses are owned by men.

A far cry to the expectations at independence when journalists like Spiwe were ready to embrace the future and make an impact on the local media scene.

Indeed during the protracted liberation struggle a free press was one of the main demands by the two leading liberation movements, the Zimbabwe African Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe People’s Union (ZAPU), who were vexed by the muzzling of the press and their limited ability to reach their supporters.

For instance in place were two notorious draconian pieces of legislation the Official Secrets Acts and the Law and Order Maintenance Act , under which independent journalists critical of the Rhodesian establishment were haunted and persecuted.

Mapfumo had a vision and the energy to immediately dive into her new role, her passion was giving women a voice, “ There was so much to be done. I could see myself covering those stories of female war vets, so they could speak.”

Female war vets had fought alongside the male comrades, made the same sacrifices, coming face to face with the same dangers, however, the story that was to be told after independence was His story, the women were silenced. To date many female war vets remain unsung heroes.

Furthermore, even when it came so some of the social-issues that affected women in society, such as polygamy and inheritance laws, they suffered silently with very little media attention. Says Mapfumo, “ the women’s voices were limited, they were afraid to talk about the things they wanted to say. They did not have a word for some of their struggles, we felt it was our business to put words to their struggles.”

The consensus by female journalists was, “ it has to be for us by us.”

However, the conundrum for the female journalists at the time and perhaps even to date, while they fought to give a voice to the voiceless, marginalised communities the majority of who are women, they too were fighting for their space and equal footing in the newsroom. Thus, the Federation of African Media Women in Zimbabwe (FAMWZ) was formed as a lobby group that would give the female journalists a voice.

While clarifying that media women, should not just follow women’s issues Mapfumo speaks on some of the challenges the girls faced in the newsroom, “ There were fewer women at the time than during your time (90s to present), this time I see more and more assertive women.”

Back then recalls Mapfumo, “ In the media you were flower pots. You covered Miss Zimbabwe or bride of the week, silly stories while guys at the same level covered more serious stuff.”

At the time for instance all editors at The Herald were men. Sexual harassment being a continual problem in the newsroom, “ Women (female journalists), were not empowered to take on the males, I will not mention names.”

She goes on to narrate how capable women were then pushed out of mainstream media, “ Some went into Public Relations, there was better renumeration, high profile and manageable working hours. Sad we lost high level women. Women going into corporate communication, a lot of girls disappeared.”

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