Newsmaker: Rachel Jafta

2013-04-21 14:00

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From picking and selling apricots in the Boland, Rachel Jafta is now soaring.

There was a time when Rachel Jafta cut apricots in a fruit factory in Tulbagh, Western Cape. It was a long time ago, but she remembers it well.

Working during holidays and night shifts, that’s how this child of the Boland scraped the cents together for her?economics degree: oneapricot after the other. Years later, she was back at that factory – as a director of the Langeberg Co-operative. “That was quite an experience for me. I was humbled because that’s where I had started?.?.?.”

Full circle.

When the Media24 board announced last Wednesday that Professor Rachel Jafta is its new chairperson, it was full circle for her again.

She was filling the big shoes of Professor Jakes Gerwel, her mentor, who died in November.

Pearls around her neck and ankle boots on her feet, Jafta recalled how, as a student, she had to do an oral exam in Gerwel’s office for the first time.

This was long before he became the principal of the University of the Western Cape, when he was still head of department of Afrikaans and Nederlands.

She remembered how Gerwel sat at his desk looking at her. “And what he saw,” she laughed, “was someone from the farm.”

As he was too.

“Sometimes Professor Gerwel asked me to stand in for him. So I think he will at least be happy that I am following in his footsteps,” she said.

“This appointment was unexpected. I did not aspire to it, but I think I can do it and do it well.”

Jafta has been on the Naspers board since 2003 and on the Media24 board since 2007.

“I have come to a company that has changed on many fronts. Adapting in a changing South Africa, to new international trends. In today’s competitive environment, rapid change is usual.”

Her academic specialisation is, in fact, the economics of technological change.

This involves the management of two things: exploitation (doing what you do even better) and exploration (constantly looking around for more opportunities).

The dual path of digital and hard copy – precisely where Media24 currently finds itself – is also reflected in her own life.

She heard about the Boston bombings on Facebook. She’s not “big on Twitter”, but reads The Economist, Financial Times and Corriere della Sera (an Italian daily) online. In the mornings, Die Burger and The New Age (free after she attended one of the president’s breakfast meetings) land on her doorstep in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, and during her first cup of coffee at the office, she quickly reads Business Day.

“Magazines – right from Destiny to Sarie and Fair Lady, and especially travel magazines, because I love to see what is happening in the world, even if I only read about it.”

Her most adventurous “journey” so far was in a helicopter over southern Italy.

“I’m a bit scared of heights, but the beautiful scenic views over Capri made me forget I was in the air.”

Then there was her great bungee jump in Singapore, she laughs.

Nature and the countryside, she loves going there, but camping – rather not.

“I should’ve got over it by now, but when we were small, ‘camping’ was more or less the way we lived permanently. I don’t feel like paying money to suffer.”

Her father had the greatest influence on her life, she says without hesitation.

He’s the one who chose her name, because after three boys he had waited as long as Jacob for a girl, and he’s the one who made sure that she went to university.

“My parents could never go to school. They always told us they learnt to read and write while looking after the goats that they had to herd.”

It was at the Berg River High School in Wellington, Western Cape, as the best matric pupil, where her first door opened.

“A teacher encouraged me to get a university exemption. It made a huge difference because someone believed in me.”

But there was no money for university and bursaries for female students were unobtainable.

So the Jaftas had a big family meeting to decide on her future.

“Everyone thought that as I was a girl, it would be bit of a waste if I went to university.

We also had no idea where the R307 tuition fees for my first year would come from. But my father insisted: Rachel had to go and study, even if it broke his back.”

So the Jafta children got down to it in the holidays, picking and packing fruit and vegetables for their clever sister’s tuition fees.

“Only in my Honours year did I get a bursary. I am grateful to my family to this day.

“And those night shifts with the apricots?.?.?.” she laughs, “only later did I realise how valuable they were. That’s where I learnt to work with people.”

Her father died of meningitis before she could show him her wonderful second-year results.

Her father, with his motto “education, education” was one of the reasons she started Rachel’s Angels’ Trust.

It runs mentorship programmes to teach children skills and entrepreneurship.

While reading for her doctorate, Jafta mastered Italian in six months.

Earlier, as a 23-year-old lecturer at Venda University, 2?040km from home, she bargained long and hard for the women in her lectures not to have to go down on their knees when some royal personage came in, as was the custom then.

When the male students objected to lectures on family planning as part of the development economics curriculum, she stood firm.

“It’s probably my Calvinist upbringing, but if I have a job to do, then I do it,” she says.

Jafta not only started a new department there, she also raised the ceiling for women.

She’s unmarried and lives in Stellenbosch, “and every time I return from an overseas trip, and I see the vineyards and mountains, my heart rejoices”.

When there is an important rugby match, you will find her in only one place: Kraaifontein, with the entire family, at her sister-in-law’s house.

Then they cheer for the Stormers.

That’s home for Rachel Jafta. On the weekends, she sometimes sits there marking exam papers, everyone doing his own thing, tea being served.

She had a special bedside table made for all her books and CDs – “I have an iPod, but I still want to see and feel CDs”. There’s always an economics book, often a detective story, preferably one of Deon Meyer’s.

Also on her bedside table is Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, Eros Ramazzotti’s love songs and a CD she bought at the Salvador carnival in Brazil – a bit of “research” as chair of the Cape Town Carnival Trust.

She laughs. “I was one of the crazy people who started this carnival. The seeds were planted during a Naspers board visit to Rio (de Janeiro in Brazil).”

Outside, the rain beats down against the large windows of the Naspers boardroom.

What makes her knees shake about this position?

“The expectations. Perception is a funny thing. I believe I got the appointment on merit, that I can do what is expected of me. What other people think about it, I can’t control. You know, you get to places on merit. Your family has sacrificed a lot to get you there. And then people slap the affirmative action label on you along with the word token?.?.?. that upsets me.”

She lifts her chin. From Cape Town to Milan, you will hear the chorus: what took you so long?

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