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Angela Larkan, 36

Executive director

The founder of Thanda is dedicated to handing power back to women — by giving them the knowledge, support and breathing room to improve their own lives.

When it comes to manifesting meaningful societal change, the most impactful shifts are a result of sowing seeds during very specific developmental milestones, then reaping the rewards years down the line as a community. South Africa suffers from dangerously high youth unemployment rates, ranks poorly when it comes to quality of education, and half the population lives below the poverty line. Our problems are so systemic and ingrained that it will require wholesale changes, and, more importantly, widespread support and dedication to change from non-profit organisations such as Thanda.

The organisation was co-founded in rural KwaZulu-Natal in 2008 by Angela Larkan, whose dedication to creating a better future for the country has led to the betterment of countless young South Africans. Larkan’s work is well recognised: she received the Mzanzi Soul Award for her contributions to South Africa in 2010, won the Southern Africa Trust Drivers of Change Award in 2013, was a finalist for the 2011 Feather Awards for Community Building, and she’s no stranger to us, having featured on the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans list.

After two years researching on the ground, Larkan launched Thanda initially to provide support to children with after-school programmes. They utilised a holistic approach for their implementation and planning, hiring unemployed youths and training them to become after-school facilitators, using local schools’ empty classrooms for their activities.

Since then, Thanda has grown in scope and ambition, currently supporting over 1 000 children and 400 farmers daily with their four core programmes. The first, the Imbewu Early Childhood Development Programme, focuses on making sure children from three to five are ready to enter school by developing their cognitive, motor and creative skills. The Siyazazi After-school Programme is designed for grades R-10 and is responsible for providing children with educational and life skills through experiential learning. Thirdly, Thanda branched out into providing mentorship and ongoing support for local farmers to help them develop their farming methods with modern practices, all within the Nisela Organic Farming Programme. Finally, the Creative Learning Training Programme, which goes full circle by dealing with educators, trains them in creative learning methodologies and provides practical teaching resources.

As for what keeps her going, Larkan knows the reason she does this selfless work: it’s the individuals who make up the communities she’s dedicated to helping. “It’s the old gogos in rural communities who motivate me. Despite their age, they continue to work so hard day after day, taking care of their households and grandchildren,” she explains.

The efforts of Thanda are ensuring a better quality of life for the women in these communities — Larkan alludes to their recent Organic Farming Programme during lockdown, which catered to many women — and hopes that their holistic approach is not only improving aspects of life or just individuals, but the communities themselves. The programmes are dedicated to handing the power back to women by giving them the knowledge, support and breathing room to improve their own lives. To quote Larkan herself,

“Power is doing something bigger than yourself – whether it is waking up in the night to care for your daughter or writing letters to change unethical policies. It requires thinking about yourself as just one small part of a greater ecosystem.”

Author - Scott Dodds
Professor Tivani Phosa Mashamba-Thompson, 42

Professor Tivani Phosa Mashamba-Thompson, 42

A medical professional who uses her expertise to not only fight against the coronavirus but also helps uplift her rural Limpopo hometown.

As the country grapples with the coronavirus, leading health professional and academic Professor Tivani Phosa Mashamba-Thompson is proud of her contribution towards the country’s efforts to fight the virus.

She is leading a group of co-investigators in Limpopo who are conducting field evaluations of new antibody-based Covid-19 tests. Mashamba-Thompson is also a member of the Covid-19 scientific advisory committee for Limpopo — which she has described as one of the proudest moments in her decades-long career.

Mashamba-Thompson is a registered biomedical scientist/medical scientist (molecular biology) accredited by the Health Professions Council of South Africa. After eight years of multidisciplinary training and working as a biomedical scientist for the National Health Service (NHS) UK, she joined the faculty of UKZN as a lecturer in public health medicine in 2015. She was promoted to senior lecturer in public health medicine in 2016, academic leader research for the School of Nursing and Public Health in 2017 and associate professor in public health medicine in 2019. In 2020 she accepted a full professorship in the department of public health at the University of Limpopo.

Mashamba-Thompson also completed her PhD (in public health) in record time (two years) and completed a year-long postdoctoral course at Harvard Medical School. Since 2015 she has supervised 15 postdoctoral students to completion (two PhD and 13 master’s). Her research has also been published in over 100 peer-reviewed publications.

In 2018, she established a peer-mentorship forum for early and mid-career academics at UKZN and beyond. She also remains an associate professor at UKZN in the discipline of public health medicine.

She is a University College London (UCL) CASMI (Collaboration for the Advancement of Sustainable Medical Innovation) fellow. Her research revolves around evidence synthesis and translational research, with a focus on implementation of point-of-care diagnostics in under-served populations.

But her academic journey has not been without pitfalls. She says: “I have survived through the barren times as a black female academic operating in an untransformed patriarchal system.”

Growing up in Mulamula village in Limpopo, she experienced how hard it was to access adequate medical care in a rural community. This lack was exposed when local doctors were unable to diagnose Mashamba-Thompson’s mother with neuron disease (a rare and incurable neurological disease).

“While trying to help my mother, I developed an interest in the field of pathology. I was determined to make a meaningful contribution in the development of affordable and accessible diagnostics approaches for people living in rural and resource-constrained settings with limited access to laboratory infrastructure,” she says.

Community development and empowerment remain close to her heart, despite her internationally recognised achievements. She established a community project in Mulamula, which involved building an education centre that includes a library with over 3 000 books, a hall and an IT suite. The project has been running successfully for the past nine years.

What makes her a powerful woman? She has overcome great odds and has made a lasting impact on the development of others — and to research capacity building in South Africa.

“I believe in community empowerment as a tool to improve social cohesion, and I always find time to make a meaningful contribution to help uplift communities,” she says.

Dr Matamela Mafune, 28

Dr Matamela Mafune, 28

When she’s not helping the country’s healthcare system fight back against the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Matamela Mafune lends her life experience to her passion project, The Purple Sisterhood, a non-profit organisation that provides mentorship and guidance for young women.

You would be hard pressed to find someone with more selflessness and commitment to their cause than Dr Matamela Michelle Mafune. A devout Christian and medical doctor, she dedicates her free time to helping other women discover their purpose through guidance and mentorship. This is all while completing her second year of internship training, including 12-hour shifts in personal protective equipment at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg.

Once her training is completed she hopes to serve her community by working in a rural hospital in her native Limpopo, using the knowledge gained during her training to improve the quality of healthcare in underdeveloped areas. She’s also hoping to follow her dreams by specialising in public health medicine so that she can make a positive impact on the healthcare system at a national level. Qualifying as a medical doctor remains her proudest achievement, which took countless sacrifices and endless discipline, but her hunger to succeed won’t let anything slow her down.

When she’s not helping the country’s healthcare system fight back against the Covid-19 pandemic, Mafune lends her life experience to her passion project, The Purple Sisterhood. The non-profit organisation acts as a community for young Christian women and offers mentorship and guidance to help members in their professional, personal and spiritual lives. As a movement, Mafune and the sisterhood believe that to make a change in the world, you have to start with yourself.

“Growing up, I was the only girl in my family. I always dreamed of having an older sister, whom I could look up to, discuss life with and learn from.” This longing for an inspirational figure to connect with remained, and realising that a number of young women required something similar sparked her into action.

The sisterhood is a community, acting as a space where these women feel protected, powerful and, most importantly, that they have a voice — and it’s valid. Mafune understands the value of the organisation in shaping the future for these young women: “I’m proud and grateful to say I’ve created a platform that gives young women a voice and a chance to become authors of their own stories.”

When it comes to her motivations, Mafune clearly understands and passionately lives up to the purpose she believes she’s been given. “Whether in my personal projects like The Purple Sisterhood or in my profession as a medical doctor, knowing that I’m part and parcel in bettering the lives of others is what motivates me,” she says, adding that serving others is a privilege she’s glad to have.

Palesa Mokomele, 37

Palesa Mokomele, 37

Palesa Mokomele is a 37-year-old woman who through her company, Ezabalobi Media, works to include marginalised sectors such as small scale fishing into the formal economy. She is a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow and has a Master’s in Political Communication from the University of Leeds. She has extensive experience in the media industry; knowing the power of the media, she uses her company to formulate lasting economic solutions for the fishing and marine sectors in the Western Cape. She says there can be no true transformation in fisheries without the inclusion of small scale fisheries.

Dala what you must; this is the motto Palesa Mokomela lives by. It’s Cape Town slang that means, “do you what you can/must”. Mokomela refuses to live within the limits that life has thrown at her, instead finding opportunities to build her community and herself.

She established Ezabalobi Media to ensure that marginalised sectors, such as small scale fishing, have an opportunity to merge into the formal economy.

She is a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow and has a Master’s in Political Communication from the University of Leeds. She has extensive experience in the media industry; knowing the power of the media, she uses her company to formulate lasting economic solutions for the fishing and marine sectors in the Western Cape.

This is mainly done through a newspaper she established, Thetha Mlobi. The articles inform, educate and create a bridge between established fisheries, government and the small scale fisher. She says there can be no true transformation in fisheries without the inclusion of small scale fisheries. Mokomela is passionate about the sector and its potential. “The empowerment of this sector has to be wholesome — in capital, value chain development and in the upskilling of men and women who rely on it,” she says. Besides fighting for inclusion, she says she is equally passionate about the communication gaps in the marine sector and, particularly, the voice of women.

Her eagerness to fight for empowerment started when she was young, accompanying her mother to demonstrations that took place on Robben Island. Mokomela grew up in Nyanga, a township in the Western Cape which is known to some as the “murder capital” of South Africa. Nyanga was violent but she says she grew up among people who loved and nurtured her. There were challenges: she and her cousins had to walk long distances to school. The difficulties she faced while growing up did not discourage her, but instead “sharpened” her vision and made her more determined to persevere and do her best so that she could accomplish her goals. She now says she is proud to have the freedom to do the work that inspires her.

Another saying she particularly likes is: “It seems impossible until it’s done” by Nelson Mandela. She says it’s been a life saver during this Covid-19 period.

“I do believe that I am making an impact in my own unique way. I am very deeply committed to justice and to open access to information. These are the pinnacles of democracy, and I believe our country will be better if we continue to strive to lift each other up. There is no true freedom if so many people are living in squalor, but there are bright and smart people who put their minds and resources towards assisting them,” she says.

Outside her work, Mokomela says she is inspired by living in a country that’s constantly in a course of change. “I am inspired by the determination of South African women to push beyond limitations for ourselves, and most importantly, future generations”, she says.

Carla Watson, 31

Carla Watson, 31

A teacher turned education activist who advises young people to take up teaching as a way to contribute positively to society.

The Jakes Gerwel Fellowship is named after one of South Africa’s most prominent anti-apartheid activists and academics, Professor Jakes Gerwel. Throughout his life Gerwel earned a reputation for being an excellent scholar and activist for education. The fellowship grooms aspiring teachers with a passion for education and development and who wish to contribute to society, just like Gerwel.

Started in 2017, the fellowship runs young people through an extensive training and mentorship programme that provides them with the skills and knowledge to contribute positively to the country’s education sector. The fellowship was founded in response to the desperate demand for improving the impact and quality of teachers in South Africa, says Carla Watson, who heads up the programme. This year, Watson will launch and design the graduate intake of the fellowship, in which people under the age of 30 will be invited to participate.

Passionate about the role of education as a vehicle for social change, Watson sees her role in the education sector as fundamental for “developing young people into social justice agents” who are “grounded in empathy and inclusion.”

“The impact I want to make in education is rooted in the acceptance of people in all their being and just how they show up; I am intentionally influencing education to encourage holistic development. I want to increase my influence right through to the department of basic education, with the goal to communicate my vision for education to the president of South Africa.”

Most people remember their favourite teacher long after they have completed their studies. It is this power that teachers have in developing young minds that Watson says should be used to position teaching as an aspirational career.

She recalls how one of her students asked her why they should be at school writing essays. Watson was taken aback by the question and responded honestly by saying: “I don’t know.”

“In that moment I could have answered with the usual rhetoric (study hard and you’ll be successful) but instead by saying I wasn’t sure, I began the journey of redefining my personal currency of success: what success looks like is in fact a deeply personal, subjective idea. With any mistake, the learning from it is what drives me every day,” she says. The student in later years returned to Watson and told her that her honesty in responding to the essay question was helpful, something which she says she keeps “close to [her] heart”.

A child of educational activists, Watson’s entry into the education system was a continuation of her parents’ activist work in the sector. She realised that her fight for inclusive education was slightly different from her parents, who were activists in the sector during apartheid.

Soon after taking up a teaching post, she says she realised that she needed to take up space differently. She saw that teachers were often sent to the classroom with little or no support and therefore new teachers were unable to maximise their own potential.

Her work as head of the fellowship responds to the lack of development and guidance for teachers that equips them to excel. She says her work in the fellowship is “a direct, intentional intervention into the systemic challenges of new teachers; directly positively impacting the experiences of new teachers in classrooms where they are armed with self-awareness, emotional resilience and a clear vision of their legacy”.

As a queer person, Watson knows first hand the importance of visibility, acceptance and representation of marginalised people. She says this acceptance is “crucial, whether it’s [by] the principal, parent, colleague or student”.

“I have learnt the hard way of what it’s like to be undermined, less visible and simply not taken seriously because of who I am,” she says.

She says her experiences as a queer women sets the tone for her choice to always hold “the space for others to shine”.

“These barriers make me cross and I appoint myself to help others transcend this and step into themselves almost every day.”

Onthatile Pooe, 17

Onthatile Pooe, 17

At just 17, she has created a space for the discriminated to engage with the rest of society.

When Onthatile Pooe’s idea of creating a platform to discuss social issues facing minorities was rejected at school, the zest of youth kicked in. She could have thrown in the towel on her idea and just lived her life as most queer, black women do, but she found another way to find her voice.

“I was definitely disappointed, but the women around me, whom I’ve always drawn inspiration from, continued to motivate me and keep the idea alive. These women have all contributed to the growth of women in their own ways and, and I was not going to stop now.”

This led Pooe to create an online platform called The Other People, allowing for more people who felt like her to voice their opinions and feelings. This platform was also open to anyone who felt social injustices in society. She wanted radical minds to deal with critical issues. At just 17, Pooe initially brought different races and sexual orientations together to change their societies, but now her vision has broadened.

“I wanted to bring all these radical minds together to change things. People usually don’t think outside of their situations and therefore cannot understand what other ethnicities or people with different sexual orientations to them are going through. It leads to insensitivity.”

“This is why I wanted strong people, because we first need to change our small societies on these social issues. Then I want to target South Africa and, eventually, I want my influence to spread worldwide.”

Pooe’s platform has not been around for even a year, but she already has highlights that have defined why she will not stop. She hosted a protest in July called Youth Pride. This was a protest vigil to celebrate the intersectional identity of young and queer people. She said that the positive impact she saw was astonishing and that it is what continues to drive her forward.”

“I want to continue with intersectional activism over the coming years. I want to broadly see social justice in every sector of society, and I want to continue helping those people who I identify with.”

Pooe, as a young woman inspiring many others, wants more women to find their voice. She believes that if fear is eradicated within women, the glass ceiling and the patriarchy can all be destroyed in a heartbeat. She has found her voice and she encourages the next woman to also do that.”

“The key to us breaking a male-dominated society is perseverance. We have to stick to what we believe in and make our voices heard. We should not be afraid to be the angry woman, or the loudest person in the room,” Pooe said.

However, no great causes or revolutions began with a leader screaming into empty space. This is why Pooe believes that, especially with the advancement of technology, women need to find a way to continue to score an equaliser in any small space that they are afforded.

“There will be challenges along the way, but life would be too boring if there weren’t.”

Buhle Hanise, 37

Buhle Hanise, 37

Like many other students, Hansie has failed, but her relentless drive has seen her become an influential CA.

The mind of a businesswoman with a heart of gold. This barely describes Buhle Hanise’s personality. She is a qualified Chartered Accountant and was recently appointed as the Chief Financial Officer of BAIC Automobile SA. She is also the Deputy President of African Women Chartered Accountants, where she mentors young women who are on their journey to qualifying as Chartered Accountants, and provides them with guidance to equip them with all the tools necessary to allow them to compete on the same level as their male counterparts.

Her work at AWCA is her cornerstone,and she focuses on teaching young women to set goals every year and sign contracts with themselves to ensure that they push the boundaries and succeed in the cut-throat environment.
Hanise knows personally how failures can wreak havoc on a young person’s plans and ambitions. It was a part of Hanise’s journey, which she now speaks about with no regrets. She describes her journey as “tough but fruitful”.

She failed her first board exam, which many young accountants also experience, but eventually qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2009. It is her success after such failures that allow her to engage with those who are up and coming and who may just feel like the profession is too much for them. Hanise explained that, when she had failed for the first time, she felt that it was okay to cry and it was okay to feel sad, but she did not wallow in self-pity and she had to move forward.

“I never sat down and said I don’t have a plan. I always took the time to regroup and reshape when I was dealing with a tough time, but kept my goal-setting up and, as I did when I was a child, I stood up and tried again. It’s only you in it at the end of the day. There can be so many structures in society that say ‘no’, but it takes a simple ‘yes’ from within to crack through every boundary.”

Lerato Moloko, 39

Lerato Moloko, 39

Racial and gender inequality permeates the golfing world and Lerato Moloko is addressing the issue head-on and growing the game by focusing on representation.

From beekeeping to golfing, Lerato Moloko is a talented entrepreneur who, above all else, is motivated to create social change in South Africa. Her project, The Grip, was founded with the aim to drive development through golf, and started off by collecting golfing gloves for junior golfers taking part in development programmes.

The idea for this initiative was sparked when Moloko was playing a round of golf with two seniors and one junior golfer and noticed that the junior golfer was playing without a golf glove — a golfing necessity, as it offers protection and provides a tighter grip as you hold the club. A couple of months later, she asked friends and family to sponsor gloves for these junior golfers. After collecting a range of equipment, including bags and gloves, The Grip was born, and the project has been on the up ever since.

Building on the progress that’s already been made with the project’s focus on this particularly important piece of equipment, The Grip now has its own brand of golf glove. The brand acts as a sponsor for young golfers in South Africa by providing gloves to them, and the gloves are also sold to the public to raise funds to enable The Grip’s specific endeavours.

Golf is an elite sport, however, children participating in the development programmes powered by The Grip are not from affluent families. Moloko aims to change the longstanding narrative of how the sport is perceived, especially in South Africa. Through The Grip, there is the opportunity to create social change — to allow children to step out of their comfort zone and experience a game that, for centuries, has only been accessible to the wealthy elite. What makes Moloko all the more inspiring is that her efforts to aid the community don’t end at providing golfing gear.

After the festive season, she noticed that some of the children involved in the programmes didn’t have school shoes. The Grip took up the task of addressing this and organised a shoe drive, which collected and distributed 44 pairs of shoes for boys and 19 pairs of shoes for girls within a month. Giving back to the community is essential for Moloko, and she urges younger generations to get involved. “Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. Put yourself forward by offering your time and talents to the community. You get to learn more about yourself, you get to build up your networks, you get to understand what work ethics are and you get to test your ideas.”

Racial and gender inequality permeates the golfing world and Moloko is addressing the issue head-on by growing the game in terms of representation. Her selfless, inspirational approach to life is inspiring the youth of South Africa to change the narrative of the sport and is energising them to act. Being a powerful woman to her means being inspirational and hopeful — sharing her influence to enlighten others and enabling the energy of power to continue to flow.

Saray Khumalo, 48

Saray Khumalo, 48

The climbs by the first black African woman to conquer Mount Everest are dedicated to people who dare to dream – providing an inspiring message and changing the narrative for the next generation.

Saray Khumalo is a Johannesburg-based businesswoman, mountaineer and mother of two who not only conquered Mount Everest in May 2019, but was also the first black African woman to do so.

Khumalo’s personal mantra is “I am extraordinary”, and her achievements fall nothing short of it. Having already scaled Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and now Everest, her goal to complete an Explorers Grand Slam (climbing the seven summits of the highest mountains on each of the continents and at the two poles) is well on its way. Summiting Everest is no easy task and it took Khumalo four attempts to reach the top. She was forced to turn back during her three previous attempts due to an avalanche, an earthquake and an injury sustained due to the treacherous conditions. However, these experiences did not deter her from trying again and, in 2019, she reached the top — a testament to her great determination and perseverance to achieve what she sets out to do.

Her climbs are dedicated to people who dare to dream, providing an inspiring message to young black African women to reach for the stars in whatever field they’re in. Khumalo aims to change the narrative for the next generation of Africans and to prove that it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from — you can still change the world. Her belief and investment in the youth of the country is truly inspiring and she uses her platform to give hope to young Africans to reach the top of their own personal Everests, despite the curveballs encountered along the way.

Khumalo’s desire to change the lives of ordinary South Africans through her expeditions have raised money, especially in education and literacy. In 2012, after summiting Kilimanjaro, her journey to give back to the community started when she raised money to build an outdoor gym and a library for a home in Johannesburg. Her initiative Summits With A Purpose has raised more than R1 million, which goes towards building libraries for South African schoolchildren as a Nelson Mandela Libraries ambassador. Khumalo believes that education is the equaliser and she hopes that young South Africans can follow in her footsteps as she continues to campaign to build more libraries, while taking steps towards the top of the seven highest peaks around the world.

Conquering the formidable Mount Everest is just the tip of the iceberg for Khumalo. Through mountaineering, she has inspired the lives of many young South African women, and has given back to communities to encourage future generations to also aim high and reach their goals. Her endurance and “never say die” attitude, combined with how she effortlessly balances being a mother, businesswoman and mountaineer, truly makes Khumalo a superhero in every possible way. Embarking on a journey to complete an Explorers Grand Slam while helping others in the process is Khumalo in a nutshell — a fearless woman whose legacy is sure to be remembered for years to come.

Tshepiso Mokoena, 42

Tshepiso Mokoena, 42

Having seen first-hand the extent of the challenges facing the hearing-impaired community, Aina took the situation into her own hands with the Tshepiso Mokoena Foundation – offering developmental support, services, healthcare and empowerment to deaf people throughout South Africa.

Dedicating your life to helping others requires a nearly endless amount of passion and a certain motivation that only comes from life experience. These moments or circumstances are etched in our memories and guide the more philanthropic of us in a direction to right the wrongs or end the injustices of one’s own experience. Tshepiso Mokoena dreamed of becoming a Chartered Accountant, but changed course and opted to become a sign language interpreter, a decision made gradually and as a result of her upbringing with – and challenges faced by – her deaf parents and uncle.

Mokoena’s exposure to the communication barriers that deaf people experience every day opened her eyes to the extent of similar challenges faced by the wider community of the hearing impaired. As a woman, she was particularly affected by seeing the unique struggles of deaf women and girls in South Africa, whose dreams are so often crushed entirely due to a lack of empowerment programmes designed specifically to help them. Aina decided that she had to take the situation into her own hands, and her years of work and determination resulted in the Tshepiso Mokoena Foundation. It was founded with the aim to offer developmental support, services, programmes, access to legal information, healthcare and empowerment for deaf people throughout South Africa.

As gender-based violence continues to plague women in the country, and with the spread of Covid-19, the foundation has its hands full with its efforts to ensure that these women are receiving adequate support – both from the foundation itself and from the institutions tasked with addressing the two pandemics. Beyond the support that many take for granted as a basic human right, Mokoena wants to empower deaf women and girls by breaking down the barriers that they in particular face: “Power means, to me, challenging accepted societal and governmental norms to ensure that the talent, skills and potential of deaf women and girls are recognised and given opportunities to grow in mainstream society.”

Her decision to change her career course is paying off, as she’s currently running the foundation from Washington, DC, working as a sign language interpreter and hoping to take her commitment to helping people global.

She was honoured at the L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth Awards in 2017 for her work, which put the foundation on the map. They’re looking to grow the Tshepiso Mokoena Foundation’s Deaf Girls Code initiative in partnership with iSchoolAfrica so that it operates across the continent. Even though her hands are full with a day job and the foundation work, she still serves on the Board of Trustees of the Equal Health for Deaf People Organisation in Cape Town, is the current Vice-President and Region 7 Representative for Children of Deaf Adults, and is a Board Member of the Immense Grace Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria.

The notable impact that Mokoena has had on the lives of deaf South African women and girls is a testament to her conviction and drive, especially when the odds are against you. In her own words, “you must understand why you are doing what you are doing, because this will keep you grounded when challenges and obstacles come your way at any point in your journey. And do not forget self-care.”

Dr Hlengiwe Ndlovu, 35

Dr Hlengiwe Ndlovu, 35

For Hlengiwe Ndlovu being powerful means standing in the gap, inspiring hope and encouraging those who come after you that anything is possible.

Dr Hlengiwe Ndlovu’s many achievements are a testament to her continued commitment to social justice as an academic, policy maker and activist. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at Nelson Mandela University; a research fellow for Transforming Humanities Through Interdisciplinary Knowledge at the University of the Witwatersrand, and a research associate at the Society, Work and Political Institute.

Ndlovu’s community projects extend her passion for education as a tool of empowerment to disadvantaged households across South Africa. In 2017, she received the Canon Collins Trust Social Impact Award for her project Reading for Tomorrow, which promotes African literature and reading for pleasure among primary and high school children.

The knowledge that she is able to make a difference in individual lives is what motivates Ndlovu to do her work.

“People often tell me that had I not intervened, they or their child wouldn’t have made it to wherever they are now… This alone encourages me to wake up in the morning, face the next day with determination and resilience, and have the patience to carry on with the work.”

Central to Ndlovu’s activism is her continued fight for gender equality. She participates often in panel discussions and talk shows, exploring the many issues facing South Africa’s women, from violent crimes to body shaming. Despite national failings, Ndlovu remains optimistic that a more equal South Africa is within reach. It is, she suggests, a question of changing national ideals into actions through the sustained effort of individuals, communities and government.

Ndlovu has participated in projects with the International Human Rights Exchange and the African Centre for Migration and Society. She is a member of both the Board of Directors and Risk Committee at the Soul City Institute, an intersectional feminist organisation that champions the rights of women in South Africa. Ndlovu is the founder of several grassroots programmes, including Reading for Tomorrow and Operation Buyela Es’kolweni.

Reflecting on the significance of Women’s Day earlier this month, she told radio host Clement Manyathela: “The commemoration shouldn’t be just a ceremonial event. If there is a belief in a just society, there needs to be a commitment. It should be an everyday form of activism to expose these inequalities but also our duty to do everything in our little corners to thrive towards a just society.”

To Ndlovu, being powerful means standing in the gap, inspiring hope and encouraging those that come after you that it is possible, it can be done.

As for her advice to black women looking to pursue a career in scholarship, Ndlovu says: “Academia is no different from any other field — it is systematically structured by the same inequalities that structure South African society in general. That being said, you cannot be African, black, a woman and be mediocre at the same time. The world will not simply allow you to. Always do your work to the best of your ability. They might undermine you, but they will never erase you, because they will be forced to respect your work.”

Shanthini Naidoo, 39

Shanthini Naidoo, 39

With her new book, Women In Solitary, Naidoo hopes to alter the way South African women see themselves — and rekindle a desire to fight injustice and change the path of history by standing strong.

While most people are familiar with the Rivonia Trial that sent Nelson Mandela and his compatriots to jail, the Trial of 22 is rarely remembered. That trial collapsed when several women, including Winnie Mandela, refused to testify against each other, despite having spent more than a year in solitary confinement and withstanding repeated efforts to torture and beat evidence out of them.

The story of Winnie Mandela, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Rita Ndzanga, Shanthie Naidoo and Nondwe Mankahla is told by journalist Shanthini Naidoo in her recently published book Women In Solitary. Naidoo hopes that it will alter the way South African women see themselves, and rekindle their desire to fight injustice and change the path of history by standing strong.

“We should know more women who we are proud to emulate,” she says.

Naidoo was a journalist with the Sunday Times focusing on lifestyle, health and social justice when she started studying for a Master’s in Journalism. When Winnie Mandela died in April 2018, Naidoo was among those who felt disappointed by how her life was portrayed by the local and international media, and made Mandela the focus of her academic research.

“While I was reporting on her funeral I came across the Trial of 22 and all these amazing women who were on trial with her, so I started looking into them and their stories,” she says. “They were individually fascinating, and together it made a really interesting narrative about their struggle experiences which you never hear about. They were so brave, with underground operations and meetings and spying and activism.”

The women had been ripped from their families and jailed as political prisoners, often in conditions that were even more brutal than those that the ANC leaders experienced on Robben Island. Naidoo tracked down the survivors, interviewed them and their families, and wrote about their heroic deeds and their contribution to freedom and democracy.

Today there aren’t enough stories told about women who stand out for their bravery, determination and passion to change their world, so it’s crucial that these lost histories from the previous generations are revived. “Something I’ve always tried to do in my work — particularly because I have two daughters who I’m trying very hard to be a role model for — is to show visible strength, because in 2020 we still don’t have enough of that,” says Naidoo. “We need to hear these women’s stories so we can leverage on their strengths, because that’s something we absolutely need in South Africa. Storytelling is a tool for healing and we have generational wounds and generational trauma that we still feel. The important thing if we are ever going to survive is that we have to look backwards first. It’s my intention to use storytelling as a form of healing.”

Naidoo lives in Johannesburg and has now left mainstream journalism to work in content marketing, writing and podcasting for Discovery. “Discovery is very much aligned with the health and wellness fields I’m focusing on,” she says.