Thando Mpembe: “Complacency is Not Good in Journalism”

From Current Affairs, Entertainment News to Sport, Thando Mpembe has had to adapt and swim with the waves in her quest to become one of the countries well-recognised writers.

Never afraid to do all that is daring, Mpembe became a manager of the Sports Desk at Briefly News, after realising that it was an untapped space in the publication. For a publication that had little readership she decided to find innovative ways to introduce sport to that market.

“I expressed to my manager that I would like to write sports stories. Briefly didn’t have much of a sports readership so she was sceptical but she gave me a chance nonetheless. That was when I became the Sports Desk Manager at Briefly News and I was managing the sports desk, writing stories, conducting interviews and trying to grow the sports readership.”

Mpembe has worked for reputable publications such as Soccer Laduma and TimesLive. Her work and versatility in the media space includes being a social media content manager, sub-editor, digital marketer and content creator.

In the South African sport media landscape, we are still not seeing a large number of writers. According to Mpembe that is because, “women are given the social media roles but are hardly ever trusted with writing. The only way it can be changed is if women are considered for writing positions fairly, or perhaps creating sports writing positions at big media houses that only women can apply for.”

gsport Writer Lonwabo Nkohla gets to know the versatile journalist…

Thando, thank you so much for chatting with us! Please rell us about your love for sport – when did it all begin?

I started watching sports from a young age since my dad loves sports, too. It all started with tennis, whenever there was a Grand Slam, I would watch with my parents. There I developed a love for Rafael Nadal and have been a staunch supporter of the King of Clay ever since. I had an interest in local football too, as my dad is a Kaizer Chiefs fan. My interest in football turned into a full-blown obsession when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup and I haven’t looked back ever since. I played tennis growing up and football. But I quickly learned that playing was not my strength. Writing is what I was good at, so I decided very young that I wanted to be a sports journalist when I grew up.

Take us through your journey as a journalist? We know there’s a history of you and entertainment, then a move to sport…

It’s crazy how I thought that once I finished my degree I would just dive in and be a sports writer but that’s not how it happened. When I was in my first year of university, a sports-caster named Peter Stemmet was working on a project called The Sports Eagle, which was a sports news website. He gave me a chance and I was more than willing, because I knew that I had to start somewhere. I wrote for the publication for about seven months, before it shut down. I focused on my studies and did some job shadowing at SuperSport in my third year of Journalism degree. Once I graduated, one of my mentors gave me a chance to work as a Reporter for TimesLIVE and I started with the news. I did that volunteer internship for two months and I learned a lot in the process. I was covering current affairs, entertainment and a bit of sports news. It was during that stint that I met Carol Tshabalala who is someone I really look up to. I also covered Varsity Football for a short time for UJ Sport and was doing pitch side reporting. It was loads of fun!

In 2019, I was busy with my Honours and I did another internship with TimesLIVE. That was where the entertainment journey began and I was writing stories about celebrities. I enjoyed it a whole lot because I am into pop culture, so it was something I excelled in. Once I worked at Briefly that was what I did mostly until I expressed to my manager that I would like to write sports stories. Briefly didn’t have much of a sports readership so she was sceptical but she gave me a chance nonetheless. That was when I became the Sports Desk Manager at Briefly News and I was managing the sports desk, writing stories, conducting interviews and trying to grow the sports readership. It was quite difficult because the readers didn’t have much of an interest sometimes, so I took it the extra mile and tried fusing sports with pop culture and that was when the numbers got better. Shortly after that, I moved on to Soccer Laduma & KickOff magazine where I worked as a Social Media Content Manager.

What have been some of the challenges you have encountered on your journey?

I think when I started off my career in sports, it was quite the challenge. I thought that just because I’ve been watching sports my whole life and I “know what I’m talking about” it would be easy, it wasn’t. I won’t name names, but sexism was a part of it, if I think of it deeply. I’m grateful to Briefly News for giving me a chance because that catapulted my career to new levels. The challenges I suffered are mainly why I ended up writing entertainment stories for quite a while. But what kept me going is that I actually love entertainment and I held onto the hope that one day I’ll get to cover sports – and it happened eventually.

You have an incredible CV that features some renowned media houses in the country, what are some of the biggest lessons you have learnt in this industry?

The biggest lessons I’ve learned in the industry is that there’s always going to be someone who’s better, so don’t get lazy once you work for a bigger publication. Complacency is not good in journalism and once I got into a social media role, I neglected my writing. You rest, you rust. You always have to keep writing, keep pitching ideas even if you’re in a managerial position. I also learned that as a manager, you need to be firm. I was guilty of being a little too easy on my journalists at the time because I didn’t want them to go through what I did, not realising that what I went through is how I got here.

As a writer and a story teller that has covered a lot of sport, where would you say we are as a country in giving women’s sport coverage?

When it comes to giving women’s sport coverage, I think we are still miles behind. Sometimes I want to watch Arsenal Women playing and I need to scramble on the internet for streams to catch their games. The last few years however, have shown an improvement so maybe things will get better. I was impressed however at how the Momentum Proteas got massive media coverage whilst they played the T20 Women’s World Cup, but I ask myself if it would’ve had the same coverage if it was hosted in a different country and not our own?

Where can we as the media improve?

As the media, especially in sports media, giving new faces a chance is something that I think we should tap into. We all have to start somewhere and you never know how good someone is at what they do until you give them a fair shot to show you.

There are still not a lot of female writers in sport media, why do you think this is the case and how can we change it?

A complaint I’ve always had about South African media is that there are not enough female sports writers. Sure, we see women on TV and hear them on the radio, but where are the writers? I think, coming from it myself, we’re just not given much of a chance to write. Women are given the social media roles but are hardly ever trusted with writing. The only way it can be changed is if women are considered for writing positions fairly, or perhaps creating sports writing positions at big media houses that only women can apply for. Wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.

With so many incredible women in sport that come before your time, who inspires you?

This is such a tough question because over the years, I have been inspired by different women in this industry. But I have to give it to the OG, Carol Tshabalala. She paved the way. Funny enough, when I first saw her on my TV screen, was when she was a presenter for a show that was called “Yebo Millionaires”. I then saw her covering the Olympics for SABC Sport sometime after that and I was inspired to see a black woman anchoring for sports. My admiration for her grew even more when she hosted the 2011 Ballon d’Or awards. I was still in high school at the time, and I remember my father and his best friend saying that they can see me doing the same one day. To this day, she remains an inspiration. I met her in 2018 when I was doing my internship at TimesLIVE and was so happy to finally see her in person. She told me not to give up my dream and whenever it gets tough, I always remember her words.

Are there any highlights and most memorable moments in your career?

The most memorable moments in my career I would say was when I was published in Soccer Laduma, after I wrote the Editor’s Note. From reading the publication as a kid and a budding sports journalist, it’ll always live long in my memory. I would also say starting the Sports Desk at Briefly News was also a good one, to be trusted with that meant so much to me and I will always appreciate being given a chance.

Take us to five years from now – where do you hope to see yourself.

Five years from now I’d like to see myself making an impact in the sports broadcasting space. I’ve always wanted to be a sportscaster and I hope that I will be doing that within the next five years. However, I don’t want to let fully let go of writing, so it should be interesting! I’d love to be a jack of all trades.

If you had the powers to grant women in sport what would it be?

The power to believe in yourself regardless of who’s watching or what anyone says. There’s a quote that says “people are going to talk whether you’re doing bad or good”. Women have been conditioned to water themselves down, not be too loud. Take up space!

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