Legend in her former employers’ newsroom has it that she could make even the toughest, most jaded thugs cry like babies, while baring their souls in interviews.
During her time as a television journalist, her raw, emotional stories of tragedy and triumph became somewhat of a calling card, and over several years, her name became virtually synonymous with tear-jerkers focusing on the everyday trials of ordinary South Africans.
And while she may have disappeared from our television screens several years ago, thousands countrywide have in recent weeks been reintroduced to the storytelling talent of Vanessa Govender. This time, however, the story is her own, but also that of millions of other women around the world.
She now goes by her married surname of Tedder, and her memoir, Beaten but Not Broken, tells the tale of her own abuse at the hands of a former partner, who often left her bloodied and bruised.
Since being released in August, the book has been steadily climbing the country’s best-seller lists, and introduced us to the other side of the tough journalist we all thought we knew.
Coming from an impoverished community in Durban, Tedder says her passion for telling the stories of the downtrodden was almost pre-destined.
“As a child we lived in a two-room tin house, one was the kitchen and the other the bedroom. Both my parents had very little education. My father was a waiter, a bus driver and eventually a long distance truck driver. For a relatively uneducated man and in a time where our community and society deemed the girl child a burden to be married off as soon as possible, my father ensured our education was priority.”
While her two sisters opted to become doctors, she says of her own path, from a journalist, to author: “It was inevitable that I would end up here at this point sharing my deepest and most intimate part of my life with countless strangers, that I would shun the shame of this evil that prevails in our homes and communities, place myself at the altar of public perception so as to empower other women to take back their power”.
Tedder says she quit journalism in order to be a better mother to her first child. Two more babies later, and she still marvels at those who juggle the responsibilities of motherhood and employment daily.
“There are thousands of women who juggle jobs and children and I am in constant awe of them because they are really the remarkable ones,” she says. “You see, I could never be a good mother while carrying the grief and sorrow of others, because it was taking its toll on me emotionally and I would struggle to cope. I could not, in all fairness, subject my children to the terribly dark places that journalism would often take me to.”
Her natural passion for telling stories didn’t simply vanish though. Shortly before the birth of her third child in May 2017, she published her first book, a children’s story called The Selfish Shongololo.
But while she was writing that, she had also started penning her memoir, recalling her time as a cub reporter at the SABC in 1999, while in a relationship with a star DJ at Lotus FM.
And she lifts the lid on the punches, kicks, being strangled, as well as the emotional and verbal abuse she had to endure at his hands.
“I have been carrying this secret for 13 years. And for as long as I remained silent about what had happened to me I was protecting someone who really didn’t deserve my protection,” she says about the reasons she decided to pour her story onto paper.
“Writing this book was inevitable. From the very first punch, to every slap and kick, every vicious word, this story was delivered to me. It has bided its time but it was always going to come spilling out.”
But while the story came pouring out, so did the deeply buried scars.
“Remembering and writing took me to some pretty dark and desperate places that I had carefully hidden away and masked with a farce of a strong, feisty woman. All these years later, the trauma of those events and violent encounters still has the ability to catapult me into a state of absolute sadness. I stopped writing almost immediately after I started. My second attempt went a little better.
“But as the publishing process neared the final stages I became increasingly depressed and despondent.
“I would constantly break down and weep inconsolably. I was barely coping. Owning one’s truth and speaking one’s truth is both a debilitating and liberating thing. Thirteen years after waking up face down in the car park of the SABC, and two months before my book was due to hit the shelves, I was finally forced to seek professional help to mend my mind and my soul.”
And, Tedder says, she also decided to tell her story in order to show other women in similar positions that it is possible to change their plight.
“I took something terrible and turned it into something that would hopefully play even a fraction of a role in lifting stigmas and stereotypes about domestic violence.
“That I made it out alive, and I survived, I was obliged to speak for all the thousands of women who can’t, those who have taken their truth to their graves and the thousands more who are looking for a way out. I am here. You are reading my story right now. Let me tell you nothing is impossible.”
Along with the issues of abuse, Tedder also addresses colourism in the Indian community and racism in SA.
“Dark skinned people are often shunned and ridiculed, and growing up I was taunted and teased by kids for being dark, to the point where I tried to end my life at 10 years old!
“Fast forward 30 years later, and if you were to ask me what is the most beautiful thing about me, without hesitation I would say my shade of brown. I found acceptance and appreciation for who I am , for my shade of brown, for my dark skin outside of my community and with other race groups …
“In my home we have shown race and religion is irrelevant because we are a mixed race family. And when naysayers are venting about how hopeless this country is, I know it is furthest from the truth. Our little mixed race home epitomises all that is possible, and all that is profoundly great and beautiful about South Africa.”
While former colleagues and friends at Lotus FM have confirmed their complicity through allowing the abuse to happen, Tedder has a message to others out there.
“This was a book not written on a whim. This book is an indictment on every person who looks the other way. It is also a message to perpetrators of this evil, your victims are no longer going to keep your filthy secrets.”