Yolisa Phahle, CEO of MultiChoice, talks to New African editor Anver Versi about her career and how the company has developed its successful policy of producing local content for African audiences.
As a CEO behind the creative heartbeat of MultiChoice, one of Africa’s biggest and most successful media organisations, Yolisa Phahle is not only under constant pressure to deliver on many fronts but to do so under intense public and corporate scrutiny. This calls for iron discipline, total clarity of vision and the rarely bestowed gift of inspiring others to outperform themselves.
In the following interview she speaks to New African editor Anver Versi about her career, what led her back to her roots in South Africa, and how MultiChoice developed the philosophy behind its development of African content for African audiences on its channels.
Your parents are South African but you were born in the UK and grew up there. How did this come about?
Yes, my parents are South African. My father comes from Alexandra Township and my mother comes from Ladysmith. She had a Zulu great-grandmother and two British great-grandfathers.
My father studied for a Bachelor of Science degree at Wits University near the end of the 1950s and my mother was studying to be a teacher. Like many people at the time, my parents were very active in trying to fight for democracy in South Africa. If they hadn’t left the country, they would probably have ended up in jail or dead.
They left in 1965 and first spent time in Botswana. Then they later travelled through Africa to find their way to England.
How was life in the UK?
We were part of quite a large South African community in London at the time. There was a huge focus as a child on being able to take advantage of what was a very good education system in the UK.
I was able to get a music scholarship at a secondary school in central London, near Victoria, called Pimlico School.
It was a much broader, much more multicultural and very progressive school compared to the primary school I had gone to where I was the only black child in my class. That was really the formative part of my education. I was hugely lucky to benefit from that, because that’s where I got music lessons.
Did you continue your music studies when you left school?
I had a music scholarship and I took piano and violin lessons. I was quite good at those lessons so I managed to secure a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They only take on about 20 piano players a year in the whole country. That’s where I spent three years studying classical music.
However, I felt it was like a step back in time. It was very conservative and people were very snobby, very snooty. I studied there, but it was a very unhappy time for me.
So when I left the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I wanted to move into mainstream music because that was where exciting things were happening.
That was when amazing artists like Jamiroquai were fusing all kinds of music, and jazz was a big part of it. And there were bands like Soul2Soul – they were the leaders in establishing a definitive Black British sound that became hugely commercial. People all over the world from all countries would come to the Soul2Soul gigs.
That’s where I really wanted to be and I was lucky enough to find myself in Soul2Soul; we did play a record with Jamiroquai. I got to tour and perform with amazing bands like Duran Duran and work with incredible people like Nile Rodgers from Chic.
This was a defining period in my career. People often ask, “How did you move from being a performer to running a company?” The thing is that when you’re a performer, you’re only as good as your last show. Nobody’s interested in any excuses.
You either go out there and do a great show and the audience loves you, and they come back and they buy your record and support you; or if you don’t give the audience what they’re looking for, then you’re yesterday’s band and somebody else will step in.
I think that’s an ethos that’s important in corporate life. You have to think about your audience, you have to think about your customer, you have to run the business as if you were running your own personal business, you need people that are motivated, people that are passionate.
Did you run into any South African musicians at the time?
I know a lot of South African musicians. My dad’s best friend was Hugh Masekela. Hugh Masekela’s mother and my grandmother were very, very good friends. When Hugh and his wife came to England, they stayed with us.
When I was a teenager, my sister and I stayed with Hugh and his wife in New York. I also knew the late Jonas Gwangwa, an amazing South African jazz trombonist.
When I joined M-Net in 2005, my first job was running a music channel, Channel O. I was lucky enough to be able to immerse myself and get to know the more contemporary South African musicians. Music is huge, huge, huge! It’s always been one of my biggest interests.
And even now, sound and music play a huge role in differentiating and bringing emotion into storytelling on the screen.
Returning to your career, you went to the BBC, making the switch from music to broadcasting?
We spent quite a lot of time in radio studios and in television studios, making music videos or contributing to radio documentaries. I always thought this was a fascinating world.
The responsibility that broadcasters have in terms of selecting programming and providing a platform for viewers to find out what’s happening in the world around them really intrigued me.
So I then decided that what I really wanted more than a career as a performer was a career in broadcasting. I started as an intern at the BBC World Service. Gradually worked my way up the ranks and was trained as a studio manager, as a sound engineer, then as a researcher, lecturer, as a producer and senior producer. So that’s really how and why I made that transition.
Did you get an opportunity to travel around the world at this time?
When I was playing for bands, I travelled extensively. I did a world tour with Soul2Soul in 1990, we went to practically every state in the US. We went to Australia, Japan, we did Europe.
Then in 1993 and 1994, I was lucky enough to go on a world tour with Duran Duran. We went to China, Hong Kong and to Indonesia.
We even came to South Africa and we played in Johannesburg at a big festival called the Rand Show. I remember them saying that a TV channel called M-Net was going to record the show. I didn’t really take any notice of it at the time.
It was a really lovely coincidence, almost 10 years later, when I joined MultiChoice and M-Net. I realised that the performance we had recorded had, in fact, been broadcast on M-Net, and I was now working in that company!
So I felt like I had always been destined to get to South Africa and get back to learn about the country of my parents’ birth.
[Yolisa Phahle was to become the first Black woman to become CEO of M-Net.]
When did you move back to South African, and how was the transition?
I moved back to South Africa in 2004. My partner at the time and I had two young children. I wanted my children to understand and meet the rest of their extended family who were in South Africa.
So we took a year’s unpaid leave. When we got to South Africa, the children just loved it. I had a part- time job just to keep us going at Channel O.
I was just completely blown away with literally everything to do with broadcasting in Africa: what people do, how quickly they do it, how well they do it. I was coming from the BBC, which is a wonderful organisation, but in many ways, quite bureaucratic.
I was really, really thrilled to be in this MultiChoice environment whereby if you had a great idea, then everyone said: “Let’s just give it a try.”
For me, that was hugely exciting; the music of Africa was at such an incredible stage. There were all these incredible artists who were building huge fan bases not just locally, but in the diaspora and being integrated into other cultures around the world.
That was really, really cool. I felt that for a creative person, there was no better place to be than in Africa, and it was for that reason that I resigned from the BBC. And, here I still am.
So what was the mood in the country? And what part did M-Net play in this new South Africa?
The youth were incredibly active, incredibly passionate. We’d had the birth of all these wonderful new radio stations, like YFM. It was a time of great optimism. The World Cup was coming in 2010. So, from a sporting perspective, from a country perspective, from an economic perspective – there was a lot of optimism.
At M-Net, we’d also seen the power of other local programming across the continent, such as Nollywood in Nigeria.
As an African company, we really wanted to not just ride this wave, but power the wave as well as build our business at the same time.
But there was very little of the African story, of the African narrative, at the time.
There was music, but there wasn’t much else. But we could see how the African story via Nollywood was so powerful. And we considered how to apply that to other parts of Africa; that drove the birth of the South African channel Mzansi Magic.
On the back of that, we went to East Africa and we launched Maisha Magic and Maisha Magic Bongo; Zambezi Magic in Zambia. And then last year, we launched two other channels: one in Ghana, Akwaaba Magic, and one in Ethiopia, which was hugely exciting.
We realised that the African consumer is just like any other consumer anywhere. In England, people watch English content because it represents and reflects their world and in the language that they speak. It seems obvious now, doesn’t it? But it’s odd to think that we didn’t have a Swahili channel for Kenya, or Tanzania, or a channel in Zambia which had Zambian actors and was shot in Zambia, and reflected the hopes and dreams of Zambian people.
But over the last 10 years, that’s what we’ve gone about building – and that’s how we’ve differentiated what we do from our competitors. We have local offices. We’ve really worked hard to ensure that in Nigeria, we have Nigerian people working for us, in Kenya, we have Kenyan people – not just working for us, but working for themselves.
What is the philosophy behind this success?
Our companies always have a very entrepreneurial spirit. When M-Net launched in 1985 as the first pay TV channel in Africa and maybe the first or second pay TV operation outside America – before pay TV in Europe – that was hugely ambitious and forward-thinking.
The DNA of the company is based on looking to the future, on being innovative. We attract those kinds of people. It is a very inspirational company to work for. It’s tough sometimes. But we love what we do.
When you were appointed the CEO of M-Net in 2015, you were the first Black woman to become the head of such a large organisation. Did you feel a lot of pressure on you?
I did! And I still feel a huge amount of pressure. The reality is that there is gender inequality in the world and in Africa. When you work for a company that is consciously striving to provide opportunities for everybody, and you get given that opportunity, then you have to do well.
I want to make sure firstly that I give opportunities to people in the way in which they were given to me; and secondly, that we show as a business that this kind of diversity, this kind of equality, is something which takes us further faster, and that we do deliver the results.
I know you’ve made a lot of co-productions. Can you name a few that you’re really proud of?
I’m really proud of Trackers, because it was our first co-production. And I’m proud of the fact that when we were able to put in front of HBO a wonderful South African story written by a South African, and adapted by a wonderful team of South African writers, they could see the potential.
I’ve also been hugely proud of a Canal+ co-production called Blood Psalms, which is in post-production at the moment. We use a lot of special effects so for us, it’s again about doing things that we’ve never done before.
It’s about genres that we haven’t been able to master. And it’s about retaining that content leadership position that we’ve all worked so hard for, that we are seen as Africa’s most loved storytellers and are seen as people who are always pushing the boundaries, bringing people more of what they love, and new things that they’d never ever dreamt that they would enjoy.
When you finally wrap up your career, what would you like to see happen?
I would like to see that the African film and television industry has grown exponentially. I would like to see the African film and television industry making meaningful contributions to the GDP of our continent. I would like to see people all over the world having an appreciation for the storytelling and the artistry of Africa.