Felicia Mabuza-Suttle is a name synonymous with post-apartheid media. The former South African talk show host captured the hearts of many South Africans with her daily show, The Felicia Show. Since then, Felicia has taken her passion for African stories to the United States where she hosts Conversations with Felicia. She tells us more about her life in front of the camera.
Growing up what was your dream job?
I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to defend what I always referred to as “good people” who could not afford to pay for a lawyer. I started my college education taking courses toward a law degree, but transferred to journalism, after realizing that I could not use an American law degree in South Africa.
I have no regrets. I ended up pursuing a career in print and broadcast journalism. My education still afforded me the opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless. Through my television show I was able to give ordinary people the opportunity to share their extraordinary stories. Thus, one of our slogans for the show that came from Clem Sunter was: “The talk show where ordinary people say extraordinary things.”
Although years have passed, you’re still well-known for hosting The Felicia Show. What do you think it was about the show that has stuck with so many South Africans?
Former South African Ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool captured it well in my new book: Live Your Dream. He said: “The Felicia Show was a weekly mass counselling session for South Africans on how to reach out and forgive during our time of transition from apartheid to democracy.”
That is true. For over 40 years, apartheid had prohibited black and white South Africans to talk to each other. Democracy came in 1994 when we inaugurated Nelson Mandela. We brought black and white, young and old into the studio to talk about our painful past, but more importantly, to celebrate our new democracy. We ensured that the world saw us continue Mandela’s legacy of a rainbow nation, as we discussed every topic of interest, even topics that shocked the nation. What made the show unique was that for the first time, we were holding what some termed “controversial” indabas (conversations).
My studies in print and broadcast journalism had prepared me for this role. I had also watched pioneers like Phil Donahue, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite and Oprah Winfrey later, who were my role models. It was risky and gutsy at the time to leave a secure job as Director of Communications at City Hall in Atlanta, but I was ready to answer Mandela’s clarion call.
During his visit to the US in 1992 Mandela called on all South Africans living abroad to come back home to help build a new democracy. I answered that call with passion and a purpose to bring understanding among the races.
During the time you hosted the show, there were many South Africans you interviewed. Which interview was most memorable?
Yes, I interviewed many outstanding people: Nelson Mandela, Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Winnie Mandela, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz (wife of Malcolm X), Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Evander Holyfield, Rev Jesse Jackson, Rev Louis Sullivan, UN Ambassador Andrew Young, Mayor of New York David Dinkins, Louis Farrakan, Iyanla Vanzant, Cherie Blair (wife of Tony Blair), Suze Orman, Rev T.D. Jakes, John Maxwell, Wayne Dyer, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Louis Gossett Jr., the list goes on and on.
I cannot pinpoint any one interview that was the most memorable because they all brought a different message or special lessons. I can only say that my greatest hour was being able to have dinners with Mandela at his home and hear him share his wisdom and humor from his dark days on Robben Island. Thanks to the Maponyas for affording me these special memories. They were lessons in humanity and humility.
Can you recall a quote or saying that captivated you from one of your interviews?
One that continues to stay with me was when I asked controversial Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakan, what his response was to the people who called him a racist. To paraphrase him, his response was something to this effect: If you call a person who loves to play a piano a pianist, or you call a person who loves his guitar, a guitarist, then if you call a person who loves his people a racist, then yes, I am.
His response completely threw me off. I found him to be one of the most thought provoking interviewees I had. As music mogul Kanye West says about him, “If you ever hear him talk, it’s about humanity, it’s about one race.” I am a proponent for integration that is my purpose, ensuring better understanding among the races through communication.
What do you think it takes to be recognized among the “100 Great South Africans”?
It is humbling. If I understand the nature of that survey, it was by the people – not some prestigiously hand-picked group of officials who had to make the decision. That is what makes the recognition so humbling for me. There was another survey that was conducted by CASE – a youth group. For me, being selected as one of their top three role models with Nelson Mandela, was an extreme honor.
You are a business woman. How did the transition to business come about?
I have always been a business woman. In the mid-70s, I started my own youth cultural centre in Soweto. In the mid-80s, after I graduated from university, I worked in Fortune 1000 companies. I worked at Manpower Inc. and Personnel Pool of America (a subsidiary of H&R Block). As Communications Director for the Atlanta City Council, I was on the team that worked on bringing the Olympics to Atlanta.
I was on the South African Airways executive team that was responsible for ensuring diversity in the airline and changing the colors of the planes in 1995. I was recently touched when Captain Mpho Mamashela was sharing this history with young people in South Africa during my recent visit. I was owner and producer of FMS Production that produced The Felicia Show, which we sold to the SABC and later to eTV.
Many young producers today have thanked me for paving the way for them to own their own production companies. I always wanted to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, Ben Mabuza, who was an astute businessman and owned real estate and restaurants. I owned my own restaurant. I am the creator and founder of one of the first dine and dance restaurants, Back of the Moon restaurant in Gold Reef City Casino. I brought in an excellent operations team as co-partners. I have since gotten out of the business because I realized you cannot run a restaurant 10 000 miles away.
The Felicia Eyewear which is still sold in South Africa continues to be one of the favorite local brands, and sells in many countries around the continent.
Our company, Leadership Success International in the US, specializes in leadership and communications programmes which we offer to corporate and educational institutions around the world. Entrepreneurship is in my DNA.
You’ve written two motivational books, both with a message of daring to live out your dreams. Why are you so passionate about inspiring people to live their dreams?
We all need a coach and a cheerleader in our lives. As a girl growing up in the township I did not have a coach, cheerleader or mentor. I would love to be a mentor to as many young people and women as possible but I cannot. So by putting those inspirational nuggets in a book, I am able to reach many people to realize their potential.
I embarked on this journey of inspiring young people in the mid-70s when I started a cultural centre for youth. After work, I had over 80 young people who would come for ballroom and Latin American dance lessons and self-esteem lectures to the Dube YWCA in Soweto. We danced to songs like James Brown’s, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” or to Diana Ross’s song, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” We danced the rumba to Nina Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” I am proud to see some of these young people excelling in their chosen professional careers today.
I believe I was born to be a teacher who inspires others to recognize their potential. We are all unique and originals. It is important to find our passion and purpose.
Can we expect a book release in South Africa?
Definitely, we have been doing soft releases in South Africa of our new book, Live Your Dream. We have a few copies of the book at Exclusive Books at Mandela Square. We will make a loud noise about it.
You’re now the talk show host of Conversations with Felicia. What do you hope to achieve with the show?
The goal of Conversations with Felicia is to change negative perceptions about Africa in America. Many Americans have poor perceptions about the continent. By interviewing well-known celebrities and leaders in America, it can help change this. Africans have to tell their own stories. If we do not, others will tell them, and possibly distort them.
Is there anyone you would like to interview that you haven’t had the opportunity to?
Yes, my dream interviews would be with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Pope Francis. I love Clinton’s ability to make everyone he talks to feel special. I had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II, but Pope Francis has undoubtedly made being a Pope “cool”, as young people would say. I love his inspirational messages to young people – urging them not to bury their talents - the gifts God gave them. But my passion is always to ensure communication and bring out the extraordinary stories from everyday people. That is why my favorite show I look forward to every year is the CNN Heroes.
Who or what would you say has had the most positive impact in your career?
Ironically, all the people – teachers and family members, who told me I could not become much. I wanted to prove all these naysayers wrong. That is why negativity does not deter or bother me. Negative people propel me to greater heights. But I have learned lessons in life; that I should never compete with the Joneses, but to only compete with my last success. This has brought me a lot of peace and success.
Secondly, I was fortunate to have people who ultimately had faith in me. Thanks to my husband, Earl, who gave me a head start in my college education, and then to George Soros, who paid for my education through graduate school. Thanks to my partners at Pamodzi Group, for making me part of a successful investment group, and most importantly my girls, Lindiwe and Zanele, for being my cheerleaders, even when the journey was rough. Thanks to the many young people who acknowledge my legacy and share it with me while I am still alive.
If given the opportunity to start afresh, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Overall, I am happy with my life’s journey. As I always say, I am enjoying my “preferment” (doing what I prefer to do); addressing groups I prefer to address; traveling to where I prefer to; being with people I prefer to be with, especially family and friends. I am grateful for a great life, and I count my blessings every day.
How do you choose to spend your downtime?
My greatest joy is being with the grandchild, Naya Naledi. We are also a tennis family, and enjoy attending major tennis tournaments with my girls, who are avid tennis players and my husband, who was their coach. I go to Miami to enjoy the ocean. It gives me time to reflect, read and rejuvenate.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I want to be a good example to those who follow in my footsteps. I want my legacy to be the fact that I tried to pave the road for others and lifted others. When we rise, we have to lift others.
My track record speaks for itself. I have even documented this legacy in my new book, Live Your Dream. In the ‘70s I started a cultural center for youth in Soweto, aimed at uplifting young people. In the ‘80s I got my alma mater, Marquette University to start a scholarship programme for South African students.
I am proud to see so many of those young people who benefitted from that scholarship doing so well today. They are entrepreneurs, engineers, journalists and some even earned MBA degrees. I am humbled when young media personalities acknowledge the role I played in paving the road for them in the media.
As Forbes contributor, Farai Gundan says in my book: “Felicia, you are to us what Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters are to the U.S. Thank you for being a pioneer and paving the way for us.”
Radio & Television talk show host Penny Lebyane says, “Something happened inside of me when I first saw you on television. Thanks to you, today I am the new anchor of eTV’s breakfast show Sunrise. I am because you dared us to dream.” Many of these young television personalities have acknowledged me in my new book. I want to ensure that those young people who grow up in the township like I did can dare to dream big and make their dream a reality. It is not where you come from that matters, but where you are going.
What’s notable to you?
Integrity ranks highest on my list of notables. I demand it from those I interact with in business and social settings because I try to exhibit as best I can. Trust is the only virtue in all relationships.
My favorite word is Ubuntu – I try to exude and practice Ubuntu as best I can. Family and friends will attest to the fact that my favorite song is Diana Ross’ “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand make this world a better place if you can.” Every day I try to reach out to someone, whether it’s a small gesture like a smile or a big outreach to uplift someone. I find it brings me joy and most importantly, blessings.
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