Words: Andrea Zanin

Looking back on my career, and my life in general, I sometimes struggle to understand the choices I have made. But the one constant is hard work. My parents are South African and arrived in London in 1966, a few weeks later I was born. Life wasn’t easy as mum and dad had no job, no family, and financially it was a struggle. That experience defined my character.

As a child, I dreamed about growing up, having enough money, family close by and owning a house. And then, when I left school I made the decision to be a musician – a notoriously difficult career choice that stood in contradiction to the security I dreamt of as a little girl. As it turned out, it was the best decision of my life – standing me in good stead not only for a career in broadcasting but as a mum, too.

After years on stage I joined the in the tape reclamation department at the BBC where we stuck old bits of tape back together in a recycling factory and in-between we cleaned the old tapes out of the studio. After a year of that, I got a job as trainee studio manager and then worked my way into the role of music producer for BBC World Service. Four years later, I was offered a job as senior music producer at BBC Radio’s 6 Music, which was the broadcaster’s first-ever digital radio station and its first new music channel in 30 years.

In South Africa women’s rights are protected under the constitution, but ‘old attitudes’ still exist. I try to help my teenage sons to be aware

But Africa is in my blood and the pull of my South African roots plus my love for African music took me back to my ancestral home. Back in South Africa, I worked as the general manager of Channel O, which became the number one music channel on the African continent. I also launched a youth channel called Vuzu and a couple of local content channels. I’m now CEO at M-Net, a pay-TV broadcasting channel in South Africa.

It’s been quite a journey – not every decision made has been the right one but I have learnt from those mistakes. Overall, it has been hugely rewarding. A good work ethic, a bit of luck, and being able to deal with setbacks as well as opportunities is what it has taken to get me where I am today. Plus I’m a woman. A black woman. South Africa has an amazing constitution – it is spot on in terms of gender issues and the need to treat men and women equally in society but in reality, many women still face huge challenges.

Although women’s rights are protected under the constitution, ‘old attitudes’ still exist. The customary law that gives black women the status of minors and excludes them from rights regarding children and property has not necessarily been nullified by a piece of paper stating otherwise. Nowadays women, and black women in particular, are still economically disadvantaged: many are unemployed and those who do work tend to occupy more of the lower-paid jobs and they often earn less than men for the same tasks.

It’s so nice to live at a time when women can have a family and a career. But it’s not easy

I try to help my now-teenage sons (18 and 14) understand the South African context and to become young men who are aware of the need to protect and improve the plight of women in the workplace in global society today.  This is not a South African problem; women are underrepresented at senior levels in business all over the world. I hope to set an example for my boys. I work for a company that has taken on board the need to transform our country, there are a number of women who hold very senior positions and I have been given many incredible opportunities for which I am very grateful. I love being able to make things happen.

The choices I have made have turned me into a better parent. I think that the places life has taken me has afforded me the privilege of offering my kids not only a holistic but a realistic experience of the world – and it’s so nice to live at a time when women can have a family and a career. But it’s not easy. The balance between providing an environment that is creative and free thinking and being responsible to shareholders is something I work hard to achieve. Being a mum is my favourite thing in the world, but sometimes I do worry that my kids get the worst of me.

At work it is important to keep a level head, so during the week I am pretty head down with my job but on the weekends I have fun rearranging my furniture, choosing flowers for the house, and being a full time mum to my kids. I cook, sometimes I bake, do the house work and then by Sunday I am ready to change gear and hit the office on a Monday. I would like to think my kids get quality time with me in the evenings and on the weekends, I know the quantity of time is less than it would be if I didn’t work.

I always remind myself that important as my job is, I am not my job. What matters most is my family, my friends, my values

I wish there was a logistical recipe for successful multitasking but there’s not. That said, there are some things I have learnt in raising two sons: the more you put in the more you get out, and putting a lot in does not mean saying yes to everything the kids want. It means preparing them for a world that will not revolve around them. When I am most tired, my kids will take advantage but I think that all they really want is for clear boundaries to be set and consistently applied. It is important to give kids a positive sense of self, but not a sense of entitlement. In my home, high EQ will always trump IQ; obviously a basic level of intelligence is required but it is important to care and empathise with other people – kindness matters.

I always remind myself that important as my job is, I am not my job. What matters most is my family, my friends, my values. All of the above have taken me to where I am today.  And all of the above will always help me deal with the tough times that life throws my way.

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