Athandiwe Saba is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian (M&G) and the founder of M&G’s data desk, an author and an avid reader. Saba is an international multi-award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, social justice, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. During her career, Saba has worked at some of South Africa’s most prominent publications, including the Sunday Times and City Press. She has experience in investigations and data journalism and has produced in-depth articles on a vast range of topics over the past decade. She is also a three-time speaker at the African Investigative Journalism Conference, has been a guest speaker at the Transnational Law Institute seminar series at Kings College in London, and has been the recipient of the News Corp fellowship with the Wall Street Journal and The Times in London. We sat down with Saba to discuss her illustrious career and her passion for data.

1. Journalism is an interesting and complex industry, how have you navigated this field over the years?

Navigating this field over the past couple of years has been centred around a lot of mentors and reaching out to journalists and editors who have cared about the craft and why we do what we do. I think getting into journalism from the onset, I wanted to tell stories and I’ve always loved writing and journalism seemed to be the best fit for me from high school. I’ve always loved the craft [journalism] itself and I’ve loved telling people’s stories and I think with that passion through all the difficulties and all of the complexities of this industry, and just understanding the basics of journalism and always getting it right has allowed me to get through it and has allowed me to have this level of longevity. I’d attribute it to great mentors and also the passion for telling people stories for the adage of giving a voice to the voiceless.

2. What are some of the stories that you have worked on over the years, that have had an impact on you?

The Marikana massacre happened quite early on in my career, I was 24 at the time, I was not there when it happened but I had watched it on television and I think I was taken aback by what had happened. I was distraught at seeing people being gunned down the way that they were. I was requested to go to the Eastern Cape because I’m originally from the Eastern Cape to go and speak to some of these families and this was a week or less after it had happened. I think that has had quite an impact on me and it’s solidified why I wanted to tell stories and why I wanted to get the voice of such people out there and what their stories and their lived experiences are. The Marikana massacre had a huge impact on me as a journalist and how I’ve continued to cover and tell different people’s stories. It stayed with me over the years and I continued to cover the story such as the commission and I continued to keep in touch with the families. I have spoken at conferences about the coverage, so that has been quite a big part of my career. Quite recently I worked on a documentary, which was 10 years after the massacre happened about what that means for our country because what happened in Marikana speaks volumes about the darkness of our DNA in South Africa and our democracy as well. There are so many nuances in that story such as migrant labour, employment, the relationship between mines and the state and caring about black lives. So that story has somewhat morphed for me to being something more than the massacre, it speaks to all of those different sectors that we cover daily, but we don’t necessarily connect to what happened on that day. That particular story still sticks with me.

3. The journalism industry has dramatically changed over the years, as the deputy editor for the Mail and Guardian, what are some of the changes that have been exciting to witness?

The changes that have been so exciting to witness have to be around how our journalism has had to compete with social media and how to ensure that journalism gets to people. Working in the space that I’m currently at now, as the deputy editor of the Mail and Guardian, I get to engage much more, not with just the content and the journalism itself, but actually getting those stories out there because if you’re just writing stories for the sake of writing stories and you don’t have the kind of impact that you want then you could just write in your diary. I’ve been blessed to be put in a position where I can begin to craft how the content gets out there, engaging with the people who are reading the content, how they’re thinking about reading the content and what they do after reading the content and being able to compete on an international level.

I think as journalists, especially in smaller countries, we think we are just writing for South Africans but we are writing for an international audience and the more years I spend in the journalism space, the more that the stories that we are writing are not just for South Africans. It’s not just South Africans who are going to use that information to hopefully strengthen our democracy, but on an international level as well, and how getting that information to an international audience allows for much more pressure for legislative changes where people’s rights are being trampled upon and being part of a global debate on topics such as climate change. Being part of that and knowing that the content that we are producing here in South Africa can reach organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, those kinds of organisations that have a direct actual impact on the policies and the regulations that are decided upon in our own parliament.

I think in the past three years with the pandemic, we’ve had to figure out how to work as journalists, but not in a newsroom, it has allowed us so much more flexibility in terms of where we go and how do we get content out there. Mail and Guardian is known as a newspaper but it can no longer be just a newspaper. It is online, it’s on social media, information is being packaged differently because we want to get information to people to educate people so they can make the right decisions, and hold those in power accountable and strengthen our democracies. It is that shift from writing for a weekly newspaper to writing on a daily basis and we’re putting content out there on a daily basis, and we consistently engage with content and issues in South Africa. That for me has been really exciting

4. What are your career highlights or what was a career-defining moment for you?

Well, I wouldn’t really say that there was necessarily a career-defining moment, but it’s been over time and I think one of my career highlights was definitely getting to work at the Mail and Guardian. and then that for me strengthened my resolve around data journalism. And finally getting around to starting the Mail and Guardian data desk, being able to have started the data desk but also being recognised on an international level. It wasn’t necessarily a moment, it was a culmination of things that made me realise that we are not just writing for South Africans, we are writing for the world and that allows for people to have a much bigger voice across countries and across the world as well.

5. Journalism has been a male-dominated industry, but more women such as yourself are taking up editorial positions. Do you think that journalism is an inclusive industry or does more still need to be done? If so, what are the ways to do that?

About four years ago, I worked on a data project to look at whether the media industry in South Africa has transformed and I approached some of the big media houses including the Mail and Guardian, Media24 and Arena Holdings asking the questions and also the smaller ones, which at that point was Daily Maverick, trying to get answers around who makes up these newsrooms and who makes up the management of these media houses. It took me a month or two to finally publish that piece. Through the research and data, I found that a lot of the management is still not black women and you’ll find that the board members are still not black women and [nor is] the management itself. When people look at myself and several other women who are in these kinds of positions, they think that the industry is transforming but if you look at the demographics of South Africa, the question is, is it really transforming? Progress is slow and we just need to try and work much harder in ensuring that we are cultivating those skills. When I had done the research in the different organisations, [it was] completely different from what was actually on the ground. That’s a scary thing I have seen from the data, I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done and it is about cultivating young people, young black women to give them the skillsets, to nurture them and I think even in the newsroom myself there’s a lot of work that we try to do such as through internships, positions and content that we produce.

6. You are the founder of the Mail and Guardian data desk, what is it and how does it work?

Data journalism is simply just using the information that’s out there and being able to track trends through that data. For instance, we are looking at the crime statistics, one of the projects we did with the Mail and Garden data desk was to look at the crime statistics in South Africa and then try looking over a couple of years, where are the crime spots for gender-based violence or for murder and have they been consistent and then we went to do the journalism and spoke to people in those hotspots about the kind of crime that’s happening there and we spoke to victims. It was a brilliant story called The State of Violence.

Since learning about data journalism I had been looking for a place to practice this particular skill and the M&G had started doing some data stories more consistently, but I knew that I needed more people to work with and I wrote a proposal. I was in London a couple of years ago and got in touch with the Indigo Trust, and they were able to fund me for two years so that I could bring in somebody who was more tech-inclined to be able to assist in the building of data sets and therefore analysis and allowing us to do the journalism based on that. It has done very well I think over the past two years. I think with Covid and funding cuts it was not able to grow but it is definitely something that the Mail and Guardian still has, and we’re still trying to revitalise it.

The data desk includes me and one or two tech-inclined individuals, where we go and get freely available data from different state departments and we analyse that data and find the outliers, causal links, and then we go and do the journalism. We’ve done interactive mapping and graphics, and we’ve tried to bring data and graphics into mainstream journalism and that’s the fun part of journalism that you can bring in all these different disciplines to ensure that you’re getting the best information out there to the general public.

Data journalism in South Africa hasn’t really taken off as much as we would’ve wanted in the past couple of years and of course, that is due to things such as funding. However, we will keep working and trying to get as many people involved in data journalism and I think that’s just one of the successes of the M&G data desk, allowing there to be a space for data to come into our stories, to solidify them and I think it’s much more important these days with all of these different websites and different so-called news sites that are cropping up and the trust issues that are becoming more and more prevalent, that we can stand head and shoulders above the rest and show when we do stories that this is not just an opinion of a journalist and a couple of people who are being affected by this particular scourge, but actually, it’s backed up by data.

7. What advice would you give to an upcoming journalist? How do they stand out, find or write those impactful stories?

I think first and foremost, with upcoming journalists, I do want to firmly state that this is a job that needs you to be passionate about it, because there are going to be times when you want to give up. There are long hours and nights and it is a thankless job and there will be times when you will get into situations that are really scary. Mental health takes a big strain, especially when you’re doing stories involving people and issues of justice, equality and equity. There’s a lot that tugs at your heartstrings so first and foremost, you have to be passionate about it because that passion will get you through some of those deepest and most depressing times.

Secondly, find mentors and people that you can work with and bounce ideas off of and keep learning. This industry has completely changed and I think in university, those changes have not filtered through and think in university journalists are still being taught how to do the basics but to be able to stand out you must always keep learning, just having your journalism degree is not enough. Learning in terms of the beat that you want to focus on and learning in terms of how best to get your journalism out there. Being interested in whatever you’re covering and always having that niche, that niche for me was data. Data has allowed me to stand out from journalists across the board but your particular niche could be finance and even though you will cover a big range of stories, even though you are able to do that, you stand out because you are the best when it comes to macroeconomics or microeconomics, climate change, etc. That’s how you stand out and finding that niche is so important because then you become the best at something.
But of course, you have the general skills to be thrown into the deep end at any angle or at any part of the journalism industry, finding that niche and constantly learning. I think for me, those are the things that have been helpful for me, finding my niche, being passionate about this and consistently learning. Even in the role that I’m currently in, I am looking for opportunities to learn more about management and publishing news on various platforms. And now we are getting into the whole AI space which fascinates me and I’m trying to learn more about that beat. It is important to want to learn more and be engaged in the changes that are happening in our industry and welcome them and not be stuck in the old way of doing things.

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