Communication, Graduate & Professional Studies

Pause to reflect: A Q&A with Felicia Mabuza-Suttle

Healing Conversations

Felicia Mabuza-Suttle, Jour ’77, Grad ’78
Broadcaster, author and entrepreneur

Born and raised in South Africa during apartheid, Mabuza-Suttle came to the United States on a student exchange program. After she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Marquette, her broadcast career took her back home to create a trailblazing national talk show, The Felicia Show, which aired from 1992 to 2005 on two different networks – the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and later eTV.

Since 2005, she has helped U.S. audiences better understand Africa through such programs as Conversations with Felicia on the Africa Channel.

— interviewed by Mary Schmitt Boyer, Jour ’77

In the ’90s, you hosted the first talk show that brought black and white South Africans together to discuss issues that were never discussed during apartheid. What was most challenging about leading that conversation and integrating South African TV?

In 1991, Nelson Mandela made a clarion call to South Africans living abroad to come back home to help rebuild a new democracy. In October 1992, I went back to South Africa to start the first audience talk show, with the aim of bringing Black and white, young and old, together after 40 years of apartheid that divided us and instilled fear among the races.

We tackled every topic that we never could have talked about during apartheid. The most challenging thing was bringing the races together and teaching the studio audience how to interact on camera and tell their stories succinctly. As Africans, we are storytellers. While American talk show audiences mostly serve as a backdrop, South Africans want to share their stories. We had to get the audience involved. We conducted what we would call an indaba, a gathering of minds.

What was most fulfilling?

 The optics — seeing Black and white South Africans together, speaking with each other, rather than at each other as they did during apartheid. We were now speaking on equal footing.

What was it like to interview Nelson Mandela?

My favorite interview with Nelson Mandela was the one with a studio filled with children who came to talk to him. He loved children and they asked him many questions related to his presidency, with one child even proclaiming, “Nelson Mandela is the president of the world.” Mandela’s mission was all about reconciliation.  So, every interview with him was aimed at striving to heal our nation.

At Marquette, you encountered naive misperceptions about your home country and responded by educating Americans about the richness of African culture and people.  What did you learn from those experiences that you applied later in your career

As a foreign student in the U.S., I found that Americans in general had naïve perceptions about Africa. The stereotypical images in Tarzan movies did not help. I realized that these negative perceptions were also prevalent on campus and alienated us.

Sadly, these perceptions resulted in many Black American students not wanting to associate with African students. White students, while more accepting of African students, also seemed to believe these media images, asking us where we bought the fashionable clothes we were wearing.  They would ask if we lived in houses and if animals roamed the streets.

I set out to use my degrees in journalism and broadcasting to educate Americans at Marquette, and later used all my platforms in the corporate and media worlds to change negatives perceptions about South Africa in America. In the U.S., I hosted a talk show on the Africa Channel primarily aimed at changing perceptions about Africa.

Do you have a favorite Marquette memory?

The one I am most proud of is me serving as an adjunct lecturer at Marquette. Yes, this little girl from the dusty streets of Soweto, in apartheid South Africa, stood in front of mostly white students in America and lectured them. The other was approaching (then Marquette President) Father John Raynor, S.J., to start a scholarship program for South African students, which was implemented in the 1980s. A number of students went through the program and are doing well, making their mark in South Africa as executives, entrepreneurs and leaders.

 Who would you like to interview next?

I have interviewed and met many people I admire and revere. I have passed the baton to the new younger generation. I am now on what I call “preferment,” doing only what I prefer to do to impact the lives of others. I am working on two books, including a kids’ book. I still do a lot of interviews and address conferences. I use social media as a platform to inspire, inform, comfort, celebrate, educate and entertain. It is an extension of my show. I urge young people to use social media responsibly.

What’s your message to students preparing for work in this changing media world?

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  Pursue it with passion.  Find your purpose.