From South Africa’s TV personality to brand marketing boss taking Dubai by storm
1. Zahirah Marty. Born in Durban and now living in and working in Dubai. Tell us a little about yourself and growing up South African?
I am the person I am today because I grew up in South Africa – a diverse, culturally rich country that taught me so many lessons about life, humankind and empathy that I only ever fully realized when I moved away. I am a brand specialist and content creator with a passion for entrepreneurship and travel. I am married to Andrew Marty, an Australian veterinarian, and live in Dubai with our toddler, Noah.
As an immensely proud South African who relocated over 10 years ago in search of greater exposure, more travel, and new adventures, I always hold tightly to my roots and am grateful for the values instilled in me. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I would travel home to Africa at any opportunity to soak up the air, the flavour and the people that I miss so very much. I started in school in 1994, a post-apartheid child who flourished in a diverse community that has contributed to my grounding as a female in a multicultural community.
During my childhood we would spend our holidays on the road, driving all around the country, from our home in Kwazulu Natal. From weekend braais to watching sport events in large public circles, the spirit of South Africa is entrenched in my identity and what I believe in.
2. You are a familiar face on Africa's TV screens, having been presenter for one of the coolest lifestyle shows on SABC 3 such as Top Billing, Top Travel and Mela. What was it like landing these opportunities at the time and how did your experience shape your deepened love for South Africa and of course - the continent at large?
I began my journey into television by sheer chance but fell in love with it forever. When a friend entered me into a presenter search, I laughed it off and thought very little of it again. Until my phone rang, and I was told that I was shortlisted to be a Top Billing presenter. Top Billing was the show we all watched growing up with absolute adoration and aspiration. It represented the magical world of fashion, beauty and premium living and events in South Africa, and I’m sure most people would agree – it simple was the best of the best.
When a shortlist of a few thousand whittled down to hundreds, then tens then 12 – it all became rather surreal. This opportunity taught me many practical and technical lessons and opened my mind and heart to an industry that now forms a huge part of identity and career. My grounding and coaching from my South African colleagues and mentors is unmatched to this day. Despite the environment I work in at the moment, my recognition and respect of South African talent is unlike any other, and through experience I appreciate the creativity and skill within our home market like never before.
I was fortunate to present part of the first season of Top Travel – the luxury travel show vertical of Top Billing. This role was the gateway to my African love story; a story that has only deepened in passion and connection over the years. From adventures on a houseboat on Lake Kariba, to my first ever dive into Madagascan waters; Africa has something that no other continent has; soul. Through television storytelling, I learnt so much about my own country, got to experience places and meet people I would have never thought possible, and grown through challenges and opportunities as a young woman finding her place in the world.
3. How did working in TV influence your movement into PR, and subsequently, you eventually starting your own businesses?
I am a storyteller. If you ask my parents, they will say this was very evident early on when I would gather the family and ‘present’ shows, with all my little cousins as performers. My love for constructing narratives, and entertaining audiences was always in parallel to having a purpose, and I think that’s where PR fits in. I was not the teenager who had their career figured out. Despite being a student leader throughout my junior and high school years, I was very unsure of what the end goal was for me, or what I wanted from life. For a while I thought the natural progression would be health sciences, like most of my family. I knew I was chasing magic, and that something magical was written for me – and even writing this now sounds a bit whimsical – but it is very much the truth. I was chasing my dreams.
When the opportunity for TV came up, I was working in BTL marketing – an early job with FMCG brands arranging mall/store activations. I love brands. I love their story; I love seeing them grow and I love understanding the science and the art that makes that happen. So, when television showed me how much of that existed around me, and how many stories there were to tell, I wanted to immerse myself in a world that allowed me to work with my passions, people and share brand stories.
My last full-time job in South Africa was PR for one of the largest shopping malls in the southern hemisphere. The job challenged me, it taught me so much about human connections and interpersonal skills, and it allowed me to broaden my experience into crisis management and lifestyle PR all at once. As a young professional female in a very complex socio-economic environment, I had to sink or swim, and I was determined to succeed.
I bounced between marketing and PR and learned some very tough lessons when I moved to Dubai. I often hear people talk of their impression of my move; and for the most part most of them are completely wrong. It was tough. So tough.
I used all my savings; I lived in minimally furnished apartment and ate 2 min noodles with very few friends and weekends at home for about 4-6 months. I hated my first job and drew from the strength of my story until that point to pick myself up and get it together!
My strength is human connection, and my passion is people, and I used this to build a network strong enough to support my very first business. Ultimately, if you strip back the layers, the ability to construct and tell stories is at the core of it all and that is a skill television definitely nurtured.
4. Then came the move to Dubai. Why Dubai and what was the inspiration for choosing this city over all the others you had been to?
Dubai has always had a special place for me. For our very first international family holiday my parents took us to Saudi on pilgrimage, then Dubai, and I loved it! Since then, I’d travel often with my dad to China and India, always with a stopover, and each time fell more in love with the city that seemed to wrap so much into one – old, new, culture, religion, power, entertainment and so much more. We usually traveled East as with the South African rand that what was the treat that was affordable to us as a family.
Prior to my move I applied for a scholarship to do my Masters in International Marketing at a London-based business school. I was granted it. But at the last minute, when it came down to working out the budget for living there and seeing how much my parents were willing to sacrifice and hustle to get me there, I changed my mind. My younger brother was nearing his university years at the time, and it was his turn for the opportunities, so I declined and decided I’d work my way back to that at some point in my life. I haven’t yet.
And that’s how my Dubai story began. I still wanted to leave South Africa in search of adventure and exposure, to touch, feel, learn and expand my knowledge of brands and markets and the UAE just made perfect sense. It was familiar, I was comfortable and felt safe here, so I packed two suitcases and jumped on a plane. I made a pact with myself that I had to try. I packed for two weeks, and stayed 10 years and counting, and have never looked back.
5. Tell us a little about a day in the life of Zahirah?
Oh goodness, no day ever looks the same. Most days I am running – from one place to the other, flying between meetings and shoots, and trying desperately to fit in cooking, exercise and play time with my son.
I start my day at around 6am, and on the road to school drop off by 7am. The gap between 8am and the 9am workday kick off is either filled with exercise, an early coffee planning session or if I’m shooting, I’m trying to fly to where I need to be to chase the morning light.
I try to book meetings around my favorite coffee spots, or cafes to avoid food being sacrificed completely. The pandemic has changed the event landscape but in the last few months there has been a rejuvenated events calendar and after my last meeting or client consult, I usually dash into one of these. If not, it’s home to cook before tucking my little guy in. I’m usually back on the laptop for some part of the evening, and if I’m really cruising, I sneak in some Netflix on the couch with my husband a cup of tea.
Shoots form a big part of my schedule, and these can either go for one hour or fourteen. I do make an effort to have my nails, hair and eyelashes done because apart from the role they play in my job, I am a massive believer in the importance of self-care and positive mental health. I book in that time, and whilst I often am cancelling and shuffling these appointments around work, I unapologetically will fit that into my week.
Until Ramadan I really let my fitness slide and I felt sluggish and mentally demotivated. Having changed that and again, prioritized that time in my day, my entire energy and outlook and been refreshed. Dubai is a remarkably busy city, and it is a place you can caught up in so many dead-end tasks very easily. Self, health and fitness is something I always say needs to be high on the to-do list; without guilt.
6. How does Zahirah maintain a well-balanced life as an entrepreneur in fast-paced Dubai, as a consultant helping brands build their presence, and as a mom and wife?
Balance is a concept I think means different things to different people. I love the pace of this city, and I thrive on it. I have learned through amazing companies like Lighthouse Arabia about being self-aware and through that realizing that the idea of balance may mean different things for me at different times in my week/month/life.
I’ve learnt to set better boundaries for myself both personally and professionally, and these have helped me to regain the sense that I am in control of my life at all times. In an industry like mine, often you find yourself ‘busy’ and you speak to others and they’re all ‘so busy’; I’ve stopped saying that. Being busy became a buzz word, and the answer we all felt we needed to give as a sign of our success. I now aim for fulfillment and that may mean that my balance of social is greater than work sometimes, or vice versa, but that is because I need it to be.
I’d like to think that the same echoes into my home with my husband and my son. You don’t always get it right, and the parent guilt of working long hours (even if it’s just a day or a week here and there) is always present, but being self-aware of that and course correcting is my strategy. I’ll then block time to spend with the family, or strip back on non-essential commitments for that time. Travel is a big part of our lives as a couple and a family and it allows us to work and play in our happy space. As cliché as this is, I love what I do. Most days don’t feel like work, and the ones that do will also have hidden passion in them.
7. Take us back to Africa for a second. In all your incredible travels, name 5 of your favourite destinations across Africa and why?
This is a tough question and cannot be answered in any particular order.
South Africa – because it’s home and I love it so much!
Kenya – The Masai people kept a piece of my heart. One of the evenings at our safari camp I wanted to cook dinner with the local team in their tented kitchen. In true African style, they handed me an apron and put me to work as one of their own. I always say to anyone that hasn’t had the opportunity to travel to Africa; the people on our continent don’t host you. They give you a piece of their heart and welcome you like family.
Morocco – The contrast in the North African culture, architecture, food and lifestyle was fascinating. We created epic content and loved the immersive nature of the country.
Tanzania – Zanzibar is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to and the Ngorongoro crater and Serengeti were some of my most unbelievable experiences. The migration was beyond incredible and like all African countries, the people and hospitality are like nothing I’ve ever experienced in all my travels. Africa is certainly not a place, it’s a feeling that lives with you long after you leave.
Zambia/Zimbabwe – The hospitality and serene nature of the houseboat and the animals around the lake left a lasting impression on me.
8. If you could summarise in only a few lines, what things do you want our readers to know to be UNTRUE about Africa?
That it is backward – when I hear this it angers me. It is a continent with several challenges but still offers world class experiences across sectors and is on par in many areas with anywhere else in the world.
That it is too unsafe to visit. There are parts of Africa, like anywhere else, that pose security concerns, but if you are traveling with an experience company or agent this is not going to be too much of a concern. Naturally, knowing the nature of the destination, you should manage yourself responsibly too.
With any destination you travel to, you should be mindful of the environment and manage your expectations accordingly. I would never travel to China and expect the level of English I’d get in the USA, and every country has its own unique package. Educate yourself on what that package is and make an informed decision on whether that package suits your preferential travel style.
Africa can, and does offer luxury like nothing you’ve ever seen. With natural landscapes that cannot be found anywhere in the world, it’s on par with the most luxurious experiences with a sense that nature has a special hand in designing too.
9. Is there one particular project you worked on in the travel space that you are particularly proud of and if so, what did it entail?
In 2019 we worked with a variety of Fairmont properties, along with Audi Canada and did a family road trip across Eastern Canada, into New York and back to Toronto via Niagara Falls. We successfully packaged lifestyle brands that were well aligned and created content for family travel in a completely new region. And with a 2-year-old in a car seat!
10. You're living a life filled with adventure and growth in Dubai. What advice do you have for our readers considering a move to Dubai for greener pastures? In the same vein, what would you like expats living in the UAE to know about what Africa has to offer by way of its people, places and diverse cultures?
I’ll tackle this question in two parts –
As the eldest cousin on my mum’s side, I’m often asked for advice from my younger cousins, or their parents sometimes. There is no such thing as “greener pastures”, just different grass. If you’re considering a move to Dubai (UAE) know that you are moving to a wonderful country that supports entrepreneurship and creativity like no other country can. It takes good care of its expat community and offers a lifestyle and infrastructure that makes for a wonderful life. In turn, expect to work hard. The streets are not paved with gold and oil does not flow from the taps. Come with the knowledge that great opportunity lies here, and that hard work and effort helps you achieve it. Stay grounded, always remember your roots and the country you come from that made you who you are today and be mindful of your values.
I could share forever. Africa is one of the most incredible continents in the world. It is a diverse mix of culture, color, language and flavour and will leave you changed in your outlook to life and humankind. You will never know warmth and hospitality like that of an African. The continent offers breathtaking landscapes of land and sea, wildlife safaris and of some of nature’s most beautiful creatures. Every part of the continent has its own personality and story, with a vibrancy and flavor to go along. Traveling to Africa isn’t just a trip, it’s a journey of heart and mind. For the more practical minded, from a cost and logistics perspective, your dollar (or Dirham) stretches very far, and you get great value for money across all areas.