Q&A with Morning Live presenter and news anchor, Leanne Manas

For nearly 14 years, Leanne Manas has been the name and face of SABC’s flagship breakfast programme, Morning Live. As she marks this amazing milestone, the award-winning television anchor and mother of two spoke to us about her life in broadcast journalism, how the industry has changed, and the solution to empowering women in Africa.

She interrupts my question with an apology: “Sorry Anton,” she says. “Just hang on a minute.” On the other side of the line, in the background, I can hear the SABC Morning Live presenter’s conversation as she gleefully assists a fellow traveller who is clearly lost in the concrete maze of Johannesburg’s CBD. She gives directions with the same confidence and sincerity that most of us are accustomed to seeing on our television sets over the past decade.

Although friendly and heartfelt, Leanne Manas can be fierce when it comes to her work. We’ve seen her make politicians and CEOs sweat with her lionhearted demeanour and fearless line of questioning. At the same time, she’s tugged at our heartstrings by conducting emotional (and exclusive) high-profile interviews with Oprah Winfrey and former president, Nelson Mandela, to name but a few. As a television anchor and presenter, Leanne is the quintessence of continuity.

“Sorry about that,” she apologises again. “Think nothing of it,” I reply as I prep my next question. “So what makes a good reporter?” I ask her, but I already know her answer. Although Leanne’s a renowned television personality, she remains, above all else, true to her calling as an investigative journalist – never afraid to hunt down and uncover the truth behind every story.

She started her career as a news anchor at Radio 702 and Classic FM before launching her television career at Summit Television. In 2004, she was chosen as the national anchor for the elections and presidential inauguration.

She’s covered almost every big landmark event or historical happening in South Africa, she delivered serious journalistic exposés and she’s interviewed hundreds of top businessmen and –women, politicians and entertainers like Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Sir Richard Branson, Seal, Jane Seymour and the Archbishop of Canterbury. If legendary CCN presenter, Christiane Amanpour, had a South African equivalent, Leanne Manas would be it.

Leanne’s day starts at four in the morning and the manic rush to provide the masses with their daily dose of current affairs is tireless work. So the next time you wake up at six, grumpy and wondering how you’re suppose to get through the day, spare a thought for Leanne. She’s been doing it for 14 years with a straight face.

The tables have turned. It’s Leanne’s turn to be in the hot seat as we “grill” her about pressing issues in our country like women empowerment, how the field of journalism has changed and how she manages to balance life between work and motherhood.

You’ve been with Morning Live for 13 years now. What do you attribute your success to?
LM: My success is a result of being able to stay as neutral and objective as possible. It’s also about doing my job to the best of my ability. I managed to distance myself from all the politics behind the scenes. It was easy because there are so many things I love about my job. One of the things I like is getting the news before anyone else. The other thing is giving the viewers what they want, and that’s the truth.

Do you ever see yourself doing something different in the future?
LM: Yes, I would love to host my own programme where I determine the content and guests. Morning Live is fast and pacey. There’s often not enough time to really dig into the issues. I would like a show that allows me time to learn about people and really get to the heart of the issue. I won’t divulge too much right now, but it is something I’ve been working on for a while. And I think with everything currently happening in the country, the timing is good. Watch this space…

The field of journalism has changed significantly in recent years. How have modern-day reporters had to adapt?
LM: With the dawn of social and digital media, everyone with an Internet connection and a social media account is a journalist nowadays. In the past, people would get their news from television, radio or newspaper, but there are so many other sources of news today, and everyone is fighting for space in the sector.

But there’s a fine line between being a good and bad journalist. There’s so much fake news doing the rounds and it has created havoc. People are more concerned with getting the news out as quick as possible instead of ensuring that it’s factual and true. Don’t get wrapped up in the chaos. The new job for today’s journalists is to interpret news factually and accurately instead of simply wanting to break the story.

Do you think government and business are doing enough for gender equality in Africa?
LM: I really hope so. On face value, it looks good. Government is always trying to push gender equality and put women in power. But are they doing enough? I speak to many women in high power positions and all of them agree that women have to work a lot harder than men to climb the corporate ladder. In my opinion, gender equality is happening, but it’s not happening fast enough…

The growth of business opportunities for women in Africa?
LM: There are limited business opportunities for African women. African women are often the faces of poverty and hardship in Africa, which upsets me. In an age where gender equality is revered and women’s successes are celebrated, Africa still lags behind the rest of the world. When you look at women living in rural areas of Africa, they are often skilled with craft, largely because the household’s responsibility rests solely on their shoulders. But do they have the necessary opportunities to become a businesswoman or entrepreneur? No, they don’t. Something has to change.

What changes are needed to put more women in top positions?
LM: I think there’s a need for more stringent legislation. Unfortunately, there’s still a culture among corporates where women are marginalised and positions continue to be occupied by men. There’s also a change in mindset needed. Token positions
are not working and education is at the heart of everything. There are so many wonderful women trying really hard, but are not afforded the opportunities. Education can change the world. It’s key to a thriving continent. Through more education, we can change the course of women’s lives and careers.

You’ve interviewed many high-profile personalities. What are your key takeaways from that experience?
LM: I’ve learnt some wonderful lessons from interviewing high-profile people. I think the aim is not to get star struck, but to be a sponge and soak up their knowledge. Talking to someone like Oprah Winfrey, I realised that she’s just a normal person who has taken her amazing talent and revolutionised herself, despite her difficult circumstances.

Being a victim of abuse, poverty and even losing a child, she rose through all the hardships to become one of the richest and most successful women in the world. Her tenacity is incredible. She never backs down from anything. I think that’s the lesson: Don’t look at people as being more special than yourself. Admire them and learn from them.

You’re a mother now, how have you managed to successfully balance your work and family life?
LM: To be honest, it’s been difficult and tiring. I don’t want to miss out on my kids growing up, but on the other hand, I also have a job to do. Thankfully, I have wonderful support from my family, especially my husband (who also works in a high-pressure job). They’ve allowed me to do what I do, and by supporting each other, we’ve been successful in maintaining the balance. I am eternally grateful for their support. But being able to maintain that balance is testament to women’s resilience. Work hard and you’ll reap the rewards. I like to think that I’m teaching my children valuable lessons in motherhood.

What makes a strong women reporter or journalist?
LM: Don’t be a walkover and believe in yourself. To get by in journalism, you need to have a thick skin. You’ll constantly be criticised, no matter what you do. Whether you take a stance or remain neutral, there’ll always be someone who’ll disagree with you.

It comes with the territory and you have to learn to deal with it. Be objective. There’s nothing worse than a biased reporter trying to push his or her own agenda. Keep you eyes wide open and report the truth. There are two sides to every story, your job as a reporter is to find the truth somewhere in the middle and report it to the people.

Who are your role models?
LM: I’ve always looked up to successful, powerful women. The biggest challenge for women is the age factor, especially in my line of work. There’s always a prettier, younger version of me waiting around the corner. But the longer you maintain your role, the more credible and respected you become. People take your seriously. I admire women like Christiane Amanpour and Oprah Winfrey. Age has not defined them. In fact, it has made them better, more respected. Integrity and credibility will stand the test of time.

What advice would you give to women aspiring to join the media world?
LM: In any country, media is a sacred space and there’s a definite need for good investigative journalists. We need reporters with a yearning for the truth and to better our country’s circumstances. In a way, journalists are public servants. Your job is to uncover the truth and help people see the light. If you feel that you want to make a different through the power of your pen or voice, then don’t ignore it. For people who want to make it in this industry, it’s an amazing industry, but you’ve got to be prepared for a lot of heartache, sleepless nights, but also a lot of joy.