Mary Menell Zients, MMX Founder and Funder

It has been a great privilege for my husband Jeff and me to play a small role in the journey that has led to MMX.

Fifteen years ago, when Jeff and I were exploring ways to support work at Duke University, where he graduated in 1988, we fast became aware of the many strands of connection between South Africa, my home country, and Duke. We were also very impressed with the journalism fellowship at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The Fellowship attracts media practitioners from all arenas from all over the world to Duke for a short sabbatical to share knowledge and experience with peers and includes exposure to the many resources of Duke, as well as the world of American politics and media.

We worked with wonderful people at Duke and leaders in the world of journalism here in Johannesburg to craft a program that would select four South African journalists with great promise each year to participate in the fellowship. We had recently lost my father, Clive Menell, to cancer in 1996 and we thought that establishing these fellowships in his memory was a very good way to honor his principles and his life’s work.

I feel very lucky to have grown up in my parent’s household here in Johannesburg in the ’60s and ’70s. In the context of some of the darkest days of apartheid, their home was always filled with people from many different communities and points of view, and visitors from abroad, all driven by the common purpose to mitigate the worst effects of apartheid and to envisage and create a better future in a democratic South Africa.  At the center of many discussions were the brave journalists and commentators from home and abroad who were courageously documenting our social, economic and political realities.

My father often expressed his profound belief in the essential value of free and vibrant media and his admiration for those who devoted themselves to gathering facts and shining a light on our most pressing challenges.  I know if he could witness this gathering of extraordinary, committed and mobilized professionals he would be very proud that some small part of this work has been done in his name. I am very grateful that my mom, Irene Menell, continues to be the driving force behind us all and many of the ideas behind this project came from her.

Since 2000, some 46 fellows have gone through the program and Jeff and I have been very lucky to meet many of them as they have passed through Washington D.C. and New York. We have been amazed by the talent and the range of skills and experience that the fellows represent. We are in awe of the momentum that this group has created to turn this fellowship base into an effort here at home to contribute to a strong and free media by building capacity, knowledge, and galvanizing the community.

The media world in South Africa faces real and urgent challenges, from budgetary pressures and newsroom convergence, to laws and tactics that limit media freedom. The vision of this conference is to create an annual forum for the exchange of ideas to explore these challenges and to examine useful tools and practices together. We hope that our project will inspire journalists to continue the work of protecting and building a strong and free media community which is at the very heart of South Africa realizing its potential as a leader in Africa and around the world.