Her career reads like a chart-topper: Yolisa Phahle first joined M-Net in 2005 as the general manager of Channel O; fast forward to nine years later and this dynamic woman is now the CEO of M-Net South Africa.
Phahle has something of a magic touch. After propelling Channel to the most watched music channel , she went on to play a role in MK, kykNET and Vuzu, and also launched Mzansi Magic. In 2012 she managed the launch of Mzansi Magic Music, and just last year also introduced Mzansi Wethu and Mzansi Bioskop.
Afropolitan met up with her to find out more about what drives her personally and professionally.
Where does your story begin?
I was born in London to South African parents. I suppose I was born in quite interesting times because it was the end of the 1960s, and I grew up in the 1970s, in what they call the “winter of discontent”. There were power failures in the 70s and plenty of union action. My teenage years were under Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady’s rule. I think coming from SA where obviously people’s rights were very important to my parents, I grew up with a lot of sympathy towards the workers in England. While the Cold War was raging in the 1980s I was a member of the CND and I felt very strongly about that the threat of nuclear war. There was also lot’s of action at a place called Greeham Common, a women’s peac The sentiment was: “we need to take charge of the world because these men are going to blow everything up”. There are a lot of parallels in terms of the women’s agenda and our continuing need to work for gender equality.the deunionisation of the workforce and big privatisation that was happening at the time is also a common theme in South Africa today.. For instance, “How do we deal with the rights of workers in a fair and an equitable way?” We have a fantastic constitution and now we need to execute that constitution. Although there are breakthroughs and women are getting opportunities that they didn’t have before there is still some way to go to address that imbalance.
You grew up in exile, tell us about that? What did you know about South Africa and what were your feelings towards it?
I was very much aware because I grew up in a small family; I had no extended family with me. In South Africa, community is everything. You can’t survive without your extended family; brothers, uncles, sisters and cousins. People often have very difficult lives here and if it wasn’t for the community that supports each other and pays for each other’s education, you wouldn’t survive. I grew up without that. My parents found themselves in a country where that just didn’t exist.
I was very conscious of that absence as a child and you would always hear kids at school saying “I’m going to my auntie’s” and I didn’t have that, but I still realized that I had a whole lot more in other ways. Family is very, very important but if you can’t have that family, l thought it was best to look at the world and say “here I am in a place where I do have equal opportunities, where I do have access to fantastic education, and my ability to go into the world and pursue what I want to do is not restricted by the laws of apartheid”. So for me that was a big, empowering and very valuable opportunity. So I decided then that was what I wanted to do and I was just going to work hard and take advantage of the opportunity that obviously many South African children didn’t have at the time.
That being said, many other people from my generation born in South Africa, still, despite that, have managed to do incredibly well. Family, roots and culture is pretty important, which I didn’t have, but there were many people travelling in and out of South Africa and there were always people in our home from South Africa. My parents made sure that I knew why I wasn’t in South Africa and understood my responsibility to myself, to my country and to my family.
Did that inform your decision to study music?
My parents just thought that they needed to give me as many opportunities as possible; I was taken to ballet and gymnastics, but I was terrible. Then I was taken to music and I was actually quite good. It was something that I was prepared to work at and I enjoyed the rewards. I didn’t think that I was going to land up being a musician. My parents would play music by the Mahotella Queen, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela and you heard it and realised that music has this amazing power to to tell a country’s story, in a way that no politician or historian is able to. Music has that emotional connection, so when you hear Hugh Masekela’s songs and you listen to the words, there’s nothing more powerful than that for me. Music gave me a connection to South Africa.
Was that part of the goal, to express that political side through music?
It wasn’t necessarily but I saw at the time that there were musicians doing an amazing job of raising awareness, like Miriam Makeba, and they travelled the world and they told the story that needed to be told in a different way to the news broadcasters and traditional print journalism. My most exciting moment in terms of SA music was actually 1997 when I came here and YFM had just been launched; there was this whole kwaito explosion with the likes of Oskido, who managed to pack out wherever they would perform. I really liked that because even though I felt strongly about human rights issues and apartheid, it was fantastic that in South Africa in 1997 you could have this underground musical movement that actually wasn’t overtly political. It was just great commercial music that people all over the world appreciated regardless of whether they related to the story of the Struggle. I think music is a really good way of taking the temperature of a society. Music was always a bit anthropological for me and so it was kind of intriguing to see why people go crazy for Soul II Soul, Oskido or Black Coffee. I loved music and over and above that I just love the human insight that entertainment gives and how it reflects people’s realities and their aspirations.
Why did you decide to move from music to broadcasting?
I just couldn’t see a long-term career in music. While you’re young, kind of look half-decent and are still in fashion, it is viable, but you wonder if in 20 years’ time they would still pay me to dance on stage playing my violin? You look at Busi Mhlongo who couldn’t afford her medical bills and that’s wrong and that’s really sad. Also I was thinking that I want to have kids and I want to have a family. I want to be able to give them the opportunities that my parents gave me. It is hard to have children while you’re out playing gigs until 3 in the morning.
Your first job in broadcasting?
My first job was at the BBC World Service. It wasn't really a job; I applied for an internship for six weeks and it ended and then I joined part of the recycling service. We were in the basement where we had to clean the studios and recycle all the tapes. I managed to wrangle myself a bit of part-time job where we were paid about five Pounds an hour and through that I networked my way up from the bottom.
Did you have an inkling that broadcasting was something you would like to pursue?
Definitely. During the internship we got the opportunity to do a mock-up radio show and the red light would go on. I realised that it is very similar to being a performer, because it is a kind of performance and there are people listening and they want to be entertained and informed. Also, it is a performance for you because it is live. It was the BBC World Service; you had to get it right and you couldn't play the wrong music. You worked as part of the team and there was a lot of creativity involved in crafting a great show. I felt very comfortable in that environment and I loved it from day one. It was another way of engaging with an audience, although you couldn't see them, you imagine that they were there and you get feedback with audience research. Today it is different, today they tell you straight away.
What made you come back to SA?
I have two children, who were quite small, and I just wanted them to meet their family. My parents had come back here so we said, “Okay, let's go for a year” and the BBC said they would keep my job for a year, like a sabbatical. When I got here I was transfixed and I didn’t want to go back.
Did you find the transition difficult?
It was the first time in my life that people could pronounce my name and it was nice; it felt like this is probably where I should have been all along. I mean obviously, I can’t speak the languages and I didn't grow up here. I have always felt kind of English but not 100% English. I have always felt kind of South African but not 100% South African, because I don’t have the history in terms of being born here. But I felt very at home and it was good to be with family and to bring my children up with their grandparents and extended family. On the work front, being at M-Net and Channel O was like a home from home. From a broadcaster that basically set world standards; the BBC is how we benchmark ourselves to many degrees, I then found myself in this incredible company that was doing incredible things and that had 100% commitment to transformation, excellence and innovation. I couldn't believe my luck.
You also worked your way up with M-Net, what was that like? Was it a similar experience to that at the BBC?
I got this great job – I was running a music channel, an African music channel! I loved music and I got the chance to learn more about television because I had been more in music radio and news. It was a learning curve and it is always great to be on the edge and be given the chance to learn something new. Bit by bit we had new ideas. We launched Vuzu, an entertainment channel that had local content but not 100% local content. And then we talked about where the opportunities are, so we said, “Why don’t we do a more local channel?” and we pitched the idea. One thing kind of lead to another and our company's black market strategy has just grown over the last ten years; I have just been lucky enough to be here at the right time. It was almost like my job grew organically with the company’s strategy.
What are the biggest challenges facing your role?
Ultimately it is about taking responsibility. So even though I have had to take responsibility for areas of the business, I now take responsibility for the South African business which is a real honour. I have team around me that I know are 100% the best people to do that job and need to empower and allow allowing them to be as good as they can be. So for me it is about not taking my eye off the detail and being involved operationally, but also building a team of people who are empowered to do their best.
And in terms of transformation?
It is important to me that we do continue to make progress and create opportunities for those who have previously not had access to such opportunities. Also that we do play our part in job creation and the creation of small businesses and that we make those businesses sustainable. At the same time we need to deliver performance and it is possible. For example, production companies on Vuzu and Mzansi Magic started with small productions and they have done very well. So they get slightly bigger productions and they continue to deliver and continue to perform, so it is possible.
Does transformation form part of the legacy that you would like to impart should you leave the organisation?
For me, my role is to elevate the importance of South African storytelling and to leverage the amazing stories and the amazing artists and performers that we have in the country to create 21st century South African television. You can’t do that without transformation, which is a good thing.
It is much talked about, your position as the first black female CEO of M-Net. How does that feel?
I have always felt under pressure but it just makes you realise how inequitable the world was and how fortunate I am to be here at this point in time. Many people have paid the ultimate sacrifice to make this possible so that people like me do have the opportunity to get an education and rise through the ranks of corporate. You feel the responsibility and you feel grateful for the people that have gone before you. There are many who have gone before me and done amazing things as black women in South Africa and maybe have not had the recognition that they should have. You feel happy because you hope that it sends out a signal to people that it is possible and you feel a responsibility to make sure that it continues. Hopefully I can be seen as someone who wants to mentor or share whatever experiences I have. It is a responsibility and a reminder of how far we have come as a country.
How do you negotiate the roles of being a mother and a CEO?
I have my family here; my mother, my father and my husband, so I am lucky. I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that I have had without my parents because they have helped me by looking after my children when needed. It is a balancing act but I’m not the first person to do it.
M-Net’s strategy going forward – is focus on east, west and South Africa?
Nigeria is a huge market not just in terms of its population but also in terms of its economy, so it is an obvious place to want to consolidate and grow further. The Africa Magic channels have been around for about ten years and Big Brother Nigeria started about 7 or 8 years ago; it is a consolidation of a long-term strategy. We are an African company and we want to work where we have the biggest understanding of the market. We also want to work where we can deliver benefits to the market. You build a business and hopefully that business creates jobs and opportunities for the populations of those countries. We want to be a responsible participant in our economies and our society – and we are African – so this is the place to do it.
What has the feedback been on local content?
We have seen a lot of growth and Mzansi Magic is doing extremely well. In West Africa we have launched local language channels so Africa Magic Yoruba and Africa Magic Hausa and those channels are performing well.
Do you still delve into music?
My children are very good at music. My son is on his grade six piano and grade five saxophone and my other son plays drum and is very active in the drama society at school. My husband is a composer so there is always music in our home. I don’t perform publicly but I perform with my family.