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Lesego Masethe, 33

Founder of Brain Waves Development
Brain Waves Development
Pretoria

Brain Waves Development is giving learners the opportunity to engage and interact with science in indigenous African languages, that makes learning comfortable and relevant.

Born and raised in Mamelodi, Pretoria, Lesego Masethe says that, looking back, there were many experiences, bad and good, while growing up that shaped the woman she is today.

“Being Muslim, a black Muslim at that, came with its share of hardships: the constant judgements, stereotypes and having to explain my religion to the world drained me and made me angry.” But she says she held on to the love and confidence that her parents gave her because, as she puts it, “my father fed my mind and my mother fed my soul”.

A top performer from an early age, Masethe’s career has had many detours before landing in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector. Inspired by her curiosity and desire to seek the truth, Masethe studied investigative journalism. When reporting on stories about drugs and human trafficking eventually took a negative toll on her, she decided to look for other ways in which to use her journalism qualification, “and that’s when I stumbled into science journalism”.

Specifically, Masethe found work at the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) as an intern. There, she received training in how to write science stories and communicate science to communities in a language that they could understand to ensure it was relevant to them. Masethe says her time at the SAASTA changed the course of both her life and her career, as it grew her passion for science and led her to her purpose of creating exposure to STEM in previously disadvantaged communities.

It was with this purpose in mind that Masethe founded Brain Waves Development (BWD), an educational initiative aimed at giving previously disadvantaged black learners in the public schooling sector the opportunity to physically engage and interact with the field of science. By employing indigenous African languages, BWD ensures that learning is comfortable and relevant to the socioeconomic challenges that under-resourced communities face. She explains: “Illiteracy and lack of enthusiasm towards the fields are high because of poor public understanding, insufficient access to STEM information, low enrolment, and poor marks in STEM subjects in rural and township public schools.”

Masethe hopes to inspire innovation in these communities by developing young minds that will not only function in society, but also grow to thrive. Brain Waves Development is establishing a STEM school of excellence, which will target young people and have a 70 percent female student intake.

Speaking on the challenges faced by women in male-dominated fields, Masethe says, to be taken seriously in the boardroom, women are often pressured into conforming to masculine norms. She says:

“I attend events and I’m praised by my male peers about the great work my organisation does, then they ask me who is in charge. When I tell them that I’m the CEO and I’m in charge, the mood in the room changes.”

Beyond the struggles, Masethe finds purpose in touching people’s lives, inspiring them to be unapologetic about who they are and teaching them to aim to excel in everything they do.

Author - Afrika Bogatsu
Josina Machel, 44

Josina Machel, 44

Activist
Kuhluka Movement
Johannesburg

The abuse from a loved one only made Josina Machel stronger than before. Now she helps other women find the voice that men tried to take away from them.

Josina Machel is an activist and the founder of non-profit organisation Kuhluka Movement. The organisation helps women who are survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) find their voice and the courage to walk away from abusive relationships. Kuhluka also calls for the end of GBV in the country.

The organisation was started by Machel after she experienced GBV in a relationship that left her blind in one eye. She said having experienced this kind of violence and surviving it made her want to help other women who find themselves in a similar position. “The abuse was meant to break me, but instead it made me stronger than ever before,” she said.

Coming to terms with what happened to her gave her the strength to rise up, tell her story, and in the process, empower others.

Besides helping survivors, Machel said the organisation fights the endemic GBV endemic and structural patriarchy that continue to oppress women. She says that women are treated “horrendously” in South Africa. Millions of them are fighting for simple things such as access to clean water, while they have to be the head of their households and raise their children.

This situation is precarious indeed. The only way we can change this is to join together in solidarity, with the understanding that we need each other, in order to affect change. We cannot value our independence, our abilities, our success and achievements without acknowledging other women.

Machel says it is only when women join together in common purpose that they will be able to garner the strength to look at their oppressors and say, “no more”.

She finds her inspiration in everyday life occurrences: sunrises and sunsets and the ability of human beings to create new life, carry it and bring it forth into the world. She is always amazed when she thinks about how her children have grown and developed right before her eyes.

“As a mother, I am always in awe when I think about how my children have grown. How they change over the years as they grow up, claim their independence, learn to reason, and even to push back when they don’t agree with something. They started off as a small seed, and through the miracle of life, they are here, and they are growing every day.”

She says since her abusive incident, she struggles to walk in the dark, but she does not let that stop her from trying. Her disability has had a great impact on her life, but she is determined to be the very best version of herself regardless.

She lives by the words of Edward Teller: “When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught to fly.”

Tshegofatso Mathe | mg.co.za
Dr Nandipha Magudumana, 31

Dr Nandipha Magudumana, 31

Medical doctor and founder of Optimum Medical Aesthetic Solutions
Optimum Medical Aesthetic Solutions
Johannesburg

Dr Nandipha Magudumana is the founder of Optimum Medical Aesthetic Solutions, a surgery that provides affordable cosmetic surgery treatments, and is an advocate for women’s safety and medical careers.

The past year has been completely new territory for medical practitioners, but those in the medical aesthetics field can say that about their everyday work life, in helping others look and feel better about themselves. Dr Nandipha Magudumana is the founder of Optimum Medical Aesthetics Solutions, a surgery that provides affordable cosmetic surgery treatments that opened in 2017 in Sandton. She received a number of accolades and recognition for this, including a spot on 2018’s Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans list. Magudumana holds a Bachelor of Health Sciences (BHSc) in Biomedical Sciences and a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB), both from Wits.

Optimum was initially a venture to raise money to further her studies, and ended up opening opportunities for other black women in the medical services space. Attracting hundreds of clients from all over Africa, the practice has evolved. “We’ve seen more women of colour enter the field, which is wonderful, as we’d like more physicians to be aware of this growing field,” says Magudumana. “Also, there’s an undeniable shift in the industry, as millennials are changing the face of aesthetic medicine. In the world of Instagram, filters, selfies and Zoom, there’s a hyper-awareness around appearances. They’re probably the generation that has spent the most time looking at themselves in history.”

Optimum has now also branched out into pharmaceuticals, in addition to dermatology and plastic surgery, providing a vital service for many. “Choosing a career where you can inspire confidence and happiness in others was what attracted me to this field,” she said in 2018. “Medical aesthetics is a field for people who are truly passionate about what they do, because you help people look and feel good about themselves.”

Her efforts don’t end there, though — another cause close to her heart is the fight against gender-based violence. “In partnership with other women, we formed a platform called Conversations with Women, which brings women together to discuss issues they are facing in the country,” she says. “Gender-based violence in our communities and country as a whole has reached an alarming rate. As members of society, we can no longer tolerate and normalise the ‘unsafety’ of women.”

Among Magudumana’s greatest career accomplishments is the expansion of Optimum Medical Aesthetic Solutions. “Within a year, we were able to move the practice to the wealthiest square mile in Africa: Sandton. We were able to create even better office space to service my clients.” Naturally, she’s a champion for women too — those of colour, and her peers in the medical field, in particular.

“We face many challenges in medicine, particularly in an industry that was previously dominated by men. Women are constantly reminded and mistaken to be everyone except for the physician,” she says.

“There’s a lack of mentorship and guidance. Many women feel unsupported, so my peers and I provided support to one another and vowed that this will be the same support that we will give to younger and upcoming doctors.”

Buntu Ngcuka | mg.co.za
Ayakha Melithafa, 18

Ayakha Melithafa, 18

Climate change activist.
Johannesburg

A fire burning to save the planet and her community is a good way to describe Ayakha Melithafa. At a very young age she focused on speaking the truth, no matter what the barriers.

As a child, it is difficult to educate adults and tell them why they should change their minds. But Ayakha Melithafa is doing just that, raising her voice and educating us all to make a stand to save the planet. The now 18-year-old woman from Khayelitsha is on a mission to raise awareness about climate change, and how it will affect the poorest the most.

“It started when Cape Town was experiencing one of the worst droughts I as a 16-year-old at the time had ever witnessed. My mother, who is a farmer, was badly affected, and I could see the devastation in my community. When I started about two years ago, I wanted to find out why the drought was so severe.”

She started researching and soon joined the African Climate Alliance and the Project 90 by 2030 initiative, a social and environmental justice organisation based in Cape Town. She thrived and knew instantly that this was what she wanted to focus her energies on. She found she had a voice that was important and more people needed to hear it. She joined other teenagers to sign a petition to the United Nations, calling on world leaders to stop violating their human rights by failing to address the climate crisis.

Melithafa’s curiosity and compassion for her community turned her into an international environmental activist and she hasn’t looked back since.

“One of my stumbling blocks at first were my peers, who kept on telling me that global warming was a white people’s issue and a first-world problem. What they couldn’t understand was that it would affect us more.”
But this did not deter her. Instead, she became more determined to speak the truth and educate as many people in her community as she could.

Melithafa believes that the voices of young activists will have to be amplified, because it is they who will face an uncertain future if temperatures and ocean levels continue to rise unabated.

She has been invited to a number of conferences to speak about climate change and her views on how leaders should be addressing the impending catastrophe.

Earlier this year she was invited to attend the World Economic Forum to address climate issues, including how some countries have declared a climate emergency, and how cities can scale up grassroots innovation to better respond to the climate crisis and contribute to global sustainable development objectives.

One of her memorable interactions was when she put her hand up to ask President Cyril Ramaphosa, at a National Youth Development Agency youth dialogue, what government is doing to tackle the country’s over-reliance on coal, when wind and solar power are a viable alternative.

“It is so important for black women to know their worth and raise their voices. I want to tell all young women out there to never dim their light for anyone or shrink to make anyone bigger. We are magnificent, powerful and amazing and that light must shine — always. Oh, we are so amazing.”

The matriculant is now focusing on her studies and hopes to become a lawyer one day.

“But that will depend on how I feel about taking on that challenge next year. If I do not feel up to it, I will continue to volunteer for organisations focused on climate change. This will give me time to learn more about the crisis we are facing and to be a stronger advocate.”

Athandiwe Saba | mg.co.za
Nomso Kana, 35

Nomso Kana, 35

Managing director
Sun n Shield 84 Tech
Lives between Jhb, South Africa and Windhoek, Namibia

Nomso Kana is a force of power noting that her proudest moments are achieving her degrees, defeating cancer at the age of 23, and being appointed as a governor at the Nuclear Energy Foundation and Agency.

Nuclear scientist Nomso Kana is also the founder of two startups. Graduating from the University of Fort Hare with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in the fields of chemistry and computer science, Kana has never been constrained by the limits of what she has studied.

The field of science can be a daunting one, but Kana has sought to overcome all possible challenges. After qualifying as a nuclear scientist, she undertook specialised training to be a medical biology scientist at the National Health Laboratory Services, ascribed by the Health Profession Council of South Africa. She has also practised as a medical biology scientist at the same institute.

She has also worked as a nuclear scientist in the radioisotopes department in a leading role for the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation.

She is currently the managing director and founder of two startup companies. Her two companies are Sun n Shield 84 Technologies, which manufactures fibre optic cable, and Blaze Away SA, a business strategy consulting firm.

Kana sums up her proudest moments in a sentence:

“My proudest moments are achieving my degrees, defeating cancer at the age of 23, and being appointed as a governor at the Nuclear Energy Foundation and Agency.”

Kana was also appointed the governor of the Nuclear Energy Foundation and Agency. “My biggest surprise was being appointed to be a commissioner in the presidential 4IR commission,” she says. Kana will be heading the commission looking into the fourth industrial revolution.

“What drives me to excel is curiosity and an inner desire to do my best in my field.”

Kana has not only been rewarded and recognised for her professional work but was also chosen as one of 80 emerging leaders in science and technology on the African continent and the Middle East in 2013, and she participated in a STEM exchange programme — representing South African proudly on a global stage.

“Be part of something bigger than you,” is the advice she would give to young people. And it is this advice that Kana embodies.

She has achieved much in her personal and professional life. And yet she still believes it is very important to give back to the community, especially younger women. Kana works with several non-profit organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, helping to provide high school learners with exposure to education options in the field of STEM.

As the regional director of the Taungana Africa STEM movement, she works with approximately 50 girls, to whom she teaches programming and mobile application development skills. Kana says she would count this as amongst her greatest achievements, which shows how much she values giving back and empowering others.

Fatima Moosa | mg.co.za
Nomsa Masoka, 43

Nomsa Masoka, 43

Speech Therapist and Audiologist
Mothers Of Children With Autism (MOCWA)
Alberton

Raising a child with a disability does not come without its challenges, but Nomsa Masoka has risen above the adversity and brought other mothers along to form lifelong friendships and support.

Nomsa Masoka’s son was just three years old when he was diagnosed with autism. As a young mother, Masoka had no experience of raising a child with a developmental disability.

Now her son is 16 and Masoka says the experience of raising a child with autism has been one of her proudest experiences. It was through this journey that she discovered her purpose was to work with families and individuals with disabilities.

“My son living with autism is the one who drives me to excel. When I look at him and where I want to see him in years to come, this motivates me to work harder in order to achieve great things for his comfort,” she says.
This journey however did not come without challenges, she says. Little did she know that the woman she would become would cost her “people, relationships, spaces and material things”.

Masoka used her experience of raising her son with autism to establish the support group Mothers Of Children With Autism (MOCWA) in 2015. MOCWA has hosted various events that bring mothers and professionals together and offer networking and educational support to families of children living with autism. This group offers educational workshops, autism awareness walks, family fun day and high teas.

MOCWA also assists families to find suitable school placement for children with autism. MOCWA is now home to 160 mothers and also offers round the clock assistance via WhatsApp group chats.

Masoka is currently in a process of opening an autism village where families can be offered respite care when they don’t have a helper or someone to take care of their children who are living with autism.

During lockdown many families have experienced challenges such as children getting lost, fatal car accidents, unwelcoming neighbours and intolerant communities as well as child abuse. Thus there is a need to provide a safe and supportive environment to some of the struggling families and their children.

“I wish to create more awareness about autism and advocate for the creation of various resources and facilities for individuals living with autism and their families,” she says.

The resources include autism-friendly holiday destinations, restaurants, recreational and residential facilities in order to allow for the inclusion and acceptance of individuals living with autism and their families within society.

A qualified speech therapist, Masoka has worked in both public and private healthcare but was unsatisfied.

“I used to think job satisfaction has to do with the amount of money you earned, accolades or the position you held in a company, but I learned that it’s when your work impacts the lives of others positively that you get the greatest fulfillment.

“It is through my pain that I discovered my purpose and now I use it as a gift to heal, inspire and uplift other women.”

Thando Maeko | mg.co.za
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, 38

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, 38

UNHRC special rapporteur, Commission for Gender Equality
United Nation Human Rights Council
Johannesburg

The medical doctor and sexual health advocate has changed the way we talk about pleasure.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng spent her self-isolation indulging in her love of Korean culture: cooking her favourite dishes and watching K-dramas on Netflix.

The sexual and reproductive health expert, popularly known as Dr T, had little time for the latter before lockdown because her days are devoted to her advocacy. The doctor shares her expertise on various platforms and she runs a women’s health clinic in Johannesburg and serves on the Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa. Her book, Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure, was published last year and welcomed by rapt reviewers.

Earlier this year, Mofokeng was appointed the United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ special rapporteur on the right to enjoyment, physical and mental health. She is the first African and woman to be appointed to this position.

Mofokeng, who grew up in QwaQwa in the Free State, says her interest in sexual health advocacy was sparked after seeing firsthand the highly medicalised conversations about sex that were taking place, especially with young people.

“They weren’t taking into account all the other different challenges young people encounter. But also the issues of sexual pleasure; pleasure is the ultimate reason people want to have sex.”

Her aim is to talk about sex in a way that is accessible and inclusive. “I want to focus on sex as something that is not only done to women, but also be deliberate about the way I talk about sexual health, sexual pleasure and the sexual rights of women.” In doing so, Mofokeng challenges the idea of desire as the domain of men only.

“But that’s why I always like to view what I do from the perspective of human rights. Because when I’m talking about young people or young adults, they have a right to information and about their health. So even though there is pushback, it’s not enough for me to change or question what I’m doing.” She says the pushback she faces, often coloured by gender stereotypes and misogyny, “doesn’t even make sense”.

In her capacity as a United Nations Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur, Mofokeng hopes that whatever solutions she and member states come up with to tackle issues of health rights are “centred around the restoration of human dignity”

As for South Africa’s gender inequality crisis, Mofokeng wants to see all spheres of government taking accountability. “I don’t think this fight can just fall on women. Women have marched and done petitions. They have marched and they have marched again. They have been violated at those very marches,” she says.

“There is a lot that women have already done and it is about time the state and the system show up and do the right thing.”

Sarah Smit | mg.co.za
Dr Lydia Cairncross, 44

Dr Lydia Cairncross, 44

Head of Groote Schuur Hospital’s Breast and Endocrine Surgery Unit, associate professor of surgery, and activist.
Groote Schuur Hospital, UCT, People’s Health Movement.
Cape Town

This associate professor of surgery’s ongoing involvement with the People’s Health Movement of South Africa allows her to continue her impactful medical work while fighting for an egalitarian system.

Dr Lydia Cairncross is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Cape Town and the head of Groote Schuur Hospital’s Breast and Endocrine Surgery Unit, but it’s her health activism work that steals the headlines and has formed the basis of her career development.

She is truly a product of her upbringing: born into a family of activists, Cairncross learnt from her parents’ example — they identified as activists first, professionals second. As a result, she approached her career in medicine with a similar mindset. It didn’t take long for her to begin using her training and experience for activism, becoming involved in the fight against HIV early in her career with the Treatment Action Campaign, after being deeply affected by the extent of the suffering patients endured before antiretrovirals became readily available. “As doctors, we could do so little to help. But here was this organisation of communities, patients and health workers, fighting for treatment and winning. It was inspiring,” she says.

As she developed as a doctor in the public health system, it became clear to her, that although there is plenty to improve when making processes more efficient and healthcare more affordable, there are factors beyond the hospitals that needed to be addressed. As Cairncross explains: “The true determinants of health are social, political and economic, such as whether our people have access to nutritious food, adequate shelter, income security, safe public transport, clean water, sanitation and environments free from violence and substance abuse.”

Cairncross joined the People’s Health Movement of South Africa (PHMSA), an international community of activists and health workers campaigning for the Right to Health for All. Her ongoing involvement with them allows her to continue her medical work with the knowledge that she and her activist colleagues are fighting for a system that is egalitarian.

Pressed to identify the proudest accomplishment in her life, she says her mind goes straight to her children. Her experience of raising them and the pride she felt having breastfed them until they became toddlers are now tied to her work at the hospital. Cairncross was the first woman to donate breast milk to the hospital’s neonatal nursery, which led her to develop a lifelong passion for supporting women in their breastfeeding journey, focused particularly on the professional mothers who aren’t working from a home environment.

Regarding empowerment, Cairncross believes in using it positively. Although power can be gained from organisational hierarchy or historical privilege, it’s the power of impact and inspiration that will have a positive effect on the world. In her words:

“This second kind of power is demonstrated in everyday people engaged enthusiastically and authentically with what they are doing. It is a power that grows from aligning a deep sense of purpose, and often service, with the work that is being done.”

Scott Dodds | mg.co.za
Dr Glenda Davison, 59

Dr Glenda Davison, 59

Associate Professor and Head of the Biomedical Sciences Department
Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Cape Town

Dr Glenda Davison champions an inclusive and comprehensive learning environment that encourages empathy in students and a greater understanding of the inequalities across local communities.

In the current global pandemic, Dr Glenda Davison’s name has become a familiar feature in the South African press. Her expertise and influence, however, extend far beyond immediate public health concerns. In addition to being a medical scientist and researcher, Davison is an associate professor and head of the biomedical sciences department at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and an honorary lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Her research interests include haematology – in which she holds a PhD from UCT – immunology, malignancy and stem-cell transplantation. Davison has published numerous papers in her field, and in 2011 received the BridgeMohan award in recognition of her contributions to haematological studies.

Nowhere is Davison’s dedication to the biomedical sciences better illustrated than in her commitment to her students. She champions an inclusive and comprehensive learning environment that encourages empathy in students and a greater understanding of the inequalities across local communities. “When our students graduate, we want them to be sensitive to the unique needs of South Africa,” the professor says. With her passion for empowering youth, and facilitating opportunities for students and graduates alike, Davison takes great pride in seeing them excel. This, above all, motivates her in her work – “the enthusiasm and energy of the youth that I have the privilege to interact with,” she says, “and experiencing the success of past students in the field of biomedical sciences”.

In further addressing South Africa’s healthcare inequalities, Davison works to strengthen ties between public and private laboratories. With her many accolades and experience, she recognises that she is in a unique position to foster change. “As a privileged South African who has had so many opportunities,” Davison says, “my greatest achievement has been to reach a position where I am able to make a difference and have my opinion heard.

“Having achieved this, I am able to empower and facilitate opportunities for younger students and leaders in the field of biomedical sciences. This is a great honour for me.”

More recently, Davison has become a leading voice in South Africa’s coronavirus coverage. Addressed to everyday readers, her articles offer insightful and accessible explanations regarding testing, tracing and the role of laboratories in curbing the spread. In compiling complex information with careful consideration for her audience, Dr Davison has established herself as an invaluable and trusted source for all things related to Covid-19.

Although the pandemic has put in-person instruction on hold for the time being, Davison remains optimistic about the academic year. “It is really heartening to experience how everyone, both in the higher education institutions and the employer sector, has pulled together in such a positive way,” she says. “Everyone has been willing to assist.”

She trusts her fourth-year students will be able to complete their clinical practice training despite the disruptions. “Graduations are always my biggest highlight,” Davison says. “I love seeing the joy on the students’ faces and the parents’ excitement.”

To young women who want to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences, Davison offers this succinct maxim: “Believe that nothing is impossible – never stop learning and asking questions.” As to what power means to her, the professor replies: “Making a difference, having influence and empowering others.”

Lucienne Bestall | mg.co.za
Safura Abdool Karim, 28

Safura Abdool Karim, 28

Public health and human rights lawyer, and senior researcher
SAMRC Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science – PRICELESS SA, Wits School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg

In her endeavours to make South Africa a healthier country, Safura Abdool Karim knows the importance of continuing to try, even when it feels like failure is inevitable.

“Too often, we are afraid to make mistakes but, really, we should celebrate our mistakes as part and parcel of the road to success,” says Safura Abdool Karim. It is this ethos that has guided her throughout her life.

Abdool Karim is currently working within the field of public health as a lawyer, but this isn’t something she envisioned for herself when she originally went into the field of law. Even though she had dreamed of working in public health when she began studying to be a lawyer, Abdool Karim thought she’d ply her trade in the courtroom. But life has a way of coming full circle and she managed to combine her childhood dreams with her adult vision.

As Abdool Karim says, she learnt that you can define your own field and path. This is something she constantly strives to do at her current workplace at PRICELESS SA, a research group in public health. Within the space, Abdool Karim uses her skills to try to make South Africa a healthier place.

She says that, sometimes when she is at work, she has to pinch herself because she gets to do the things she once only dreamed about. Abdool Karim helps support the creation and adoption of new policies and laws to develop new ways of using laws and doing research.

The passion and dedication Abdool Karim brings to her work is a quality she says she has always had. From graduating with her master’s degree to being admitted as an attorney, this passion has been a constant in her drive to succeed.

Another inspirational quality is her dedication to never quitting. One of the special moments in her life was getting accepted as a clerk at the Constitutional Court. She says that, if she hadn’t kept striving and refusing to quit, it might have never happened. She applied many times and failed many times, and it was a constant debate about whether it was worth it or if she should accept the rejection.

“It taught me an important lesson about continuing to try, even when it felt like failure was inevitable,” she says.

Most successful people always say they didn’t get to where they are by themselves. There were always people who encouraged them and kept them going, even when it felt like an impossible dream. For Abdool Karim, those people are her parents. She says they taught her many lessons, and two specific values they instilled in her have been behind much of her drive and focus.

“The first value was to make the world a better place and to work in service to the betterment of my society.” In her work as a public health lawyer, Abdool Karim works towards creating ways for laws to improve people’s lives. The second value her parents taught her was to chart her own course. She has looked at the work of those who came before her and has tried to see how she can improve it or make her own mark.

The world is currently grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and Abdool Karim has been using her strong foundation in HIV and tuberculosis to understand some of the legal issues that have arisen regarding Covid-19.

That’s probably why her advice to impart to others is:

“I think it’s difficult to know what the future holds, more and more what our society will look like in a few years or even months is becoming uncertain. We don’t know what this world will need and what opportunities it may hold, but if you are prepared, you will always be in a position to add value and respond to changing times.”

Fatima Moosa | mg.co.za
Sarah Cressey, 27

Sarah Cressey, 27

Project Manager
The Grace Factory
Johannesburg

Leveraging the network that she gained while competing in Miss South Africa, Cressey is dedicated to improving the circumstances of new mothers and their babies – and our collective understanding of reproductive rights.

Finding the courage to enter the Miss South Africa competition was a huge confidence and career boost for Sarah Cressey (née Botes).

Previously shy and rather timid, entering the contest in 2016 took a lot of guts. She didn’t win the pageant, but she did benefit enormously in other ways by gaining new networks of friends and business contacts that have helped her to grow the charity that she’s now focusing on full time.

Last year, Cressey quit her job to devote more time to The Grace Factory, an organisation that helps poverty-stricken mums cope with the demands of caring for their newborn babies. The initiative delivers packs of essential items such as nappies, blankets, toiletries and clothes to hospitals, baby homes and places of safety. The Grace Factory also works with organisations and counselling centres that help vulnerable girls and women who find themselves facing an unexpected or crisis pregnancy.

“I was working for a big corporate, but I resigned because my dream is to run The Grace Factory full time,” she says. “I’m passionate about making a difference and specifically helping mothers with babies.”

Cressey lives in Johannesburg, where she manages the day-to-day activities of The Grace Factory as its project manager. She also runs its social media pages, and she’s trying to grow the organisation so it can establish proper offices and pay salaries. She specifically wants to create the ability to help women facing difficult circumstances by offering counselling and practical help. The network that she made by competing in Miss South Africa will help with that, she believes.

“People think it’s just a bunch of girls competing with each other, and while there is one winner, it changed everything for me. I’d been a very quiet, shy person for most of my life, so it brought out a new confidence in me, and taught me how to network and how to speak to people and deal with the public. It gave me the confidence to know that I can go further with my passion and my dreams, and it helped me build a very big network that I can use for my charity work.”

She only found the courage to enter the contest because she had support from other women who believed in her. That kind of unwavering support is something that women in difficult situations should be able to receive from The Grace Factory, she believes – and her aspirations for the organisation are informed by this ideal, combined with her keen understanding of the challenges that women in South Africa face every day.

“Our major goal would be to open our own centre aimed at helping women and girls to know their rights, specifically their reproductive rights. Our ultimate goal is to work with women and empower them to make their own choices,” she says. “Often, people don’t realise that some women don’t have the right to their own bodies. People are so quick to judge and say, ‘how can this woman be pregnant again?’, but maybe she didn’t have a say, because abuse is so high in this country that falling pregnant often isn’t by choice.”

Lesley Stones | mg.co.za
Neo Rethabile Selebano, 33

Neo Rethabile Selebano, 33

NPC founder
EmaLenna Foundation
Soweto

A woman on a mission, to develop a culture of sharing individual stories and creating a safe space for those who suffer from depression, Neo Selebano is changing her community for the better.

Neo Selebano is all about giving back to the community. She is well known around Soweto for running many different charity initiatives to help those in the community. Under her EmaLenna non-profit organisation, Selebano has assisted young girls with sanitary towels. She has also mobilised the community to help with food parcels to donate to people affected by the coronavirus lockdown.

Opening the EmaLenna Foundation is something Selebano counts as one of her proudest moments. The foundation operates primarily as a depression awareness non-profit organisation.

Selabano created the organisation after she realised the level of stigma associated with depression in black communities. She says being a depression survivor herself motivated her to become an activist.

“The aim of my foundation is to destigmatise depression in underprivileged communities by starting counselling sessions,” she says.

Selebano wants to introduce a culture of sharing individual stories by creating a safe space for those who suffer from depression. More than that, she wants to inspire individuals to speak up and not succumb to depression on their own.

To bring people together, she hosts depression awareness picnics every October. Selebano says that, when she hosted her first picnic in Soweto, she was surprised by the turnout. “The turnout was so good and about 500 people pitched.”

It is her past that drives Selebano to excel. Her campaigns are based on her own pain and suffering. Using that pain, Selebano hopes to find others who are suffering and help them. She wants to be an instrument of healing for people who are currently suffering from depression or are survivors of depression.

“Knowing that I’m someone’s answer to a prayer is enough,” she says. That’s why the advice she would give to her younger self is:

“Be strong. One day, those scars in your emotions will be your stars.”

But Selebano does not only help people in the community with depression. Using her foundation, she runs many different programmes. One of these is a feeding scheme. Through the programme, Selebano and her team provide food and sustenance to those who are destitute. She says they want to become a safe place where those with empty stomachs can come to get a meal to keep them going and get hope to survive the day.

Even as the world is struggling with Covid-19, Selebano has been working on other ways to help those in her community. She and her organisation noticed that many people had lost their incomes during the lockdown. The foundation, under Selebano’s leadership, started a bread campaign that hands out bread to the community every day.

“We are currently feeding about 350 kids at least one decent meal per day from Wednesday to Saturday,” she says about another feeding programme. Through her foundation, Selebano has also started a daily feeding scheme and a project to feed families. Another project Selebano works on is the “adopt a girl” project. She is passionate about empowering the young people in her community.

To help people around her, Selebano says she uses the actual issues facing the communities to start programmes that directly help those who need it most.

Fatima Moosa | mg.co.za
Mahlatse Nkuna, 28

Mahlatse Nkuna, 28

Mahlatse is currently crowdfunding for her sex reassignment surgery
Soweto

How transitioning saved Mahlatse Nkuna.

I have two birthdays. The day my mother gave birth to her and the day I gave birth to myself.

My transgender rebirth day is November 15 2017; this is the day I saw a doctor about starting hormone replacement therapy and left with a prescription to start my medical transition journey. That’s how women like us stop our testosterone poisoning.

Before then, I had been fiddling with oestrogen and testosterone blockers since August. I didn’t want to convince anyone I was a woman. I had a black gay man for a therapist earlier that year. I told him I wanted to transition — assuming as a fellow queer person he would be supportive — and he discouraged me.

Gatekeeping from medical professionals is the reason I found a way to get hormones without a prescription and started taking them based on what I had read online. But I got very sick; my skin broke out and I was nauseous for weeks.

Going through the medical system is not only daunting because of the gatekeeping, it is also time-consuming and expensive. Your general practitioner is supposed to refer you to a gender therapist and that will lead to an endocrinologist who will give you hormones. That is a lot of specialist consultation fees. I’m a black trans woman from Soweto — I don’t have money to waste.

When friends of mine found out I had gone rogue, they funded my first consultation with a great doctor in Bryanston. Even though I regret taking chances with my life through self-medication, I got to skip a lot of unnecessary steps when I finally saw her. I was already on oestrogen so she added progesterone and told me to stop using the testosterone blocker that made me sick. I have been thriving ever since.

Transitioning saved me.

I had no interest in being a man and would’ve definitely taken my own life had I not been treated. I have reached a point where I am able to love my body. Dysphoria is not a big part of my life anymore. However, I am not done medically transitioning. I would like sex reassignment surgery.

The procedure costs thousands of dollars in Thailand and India, possibly more in the US and the UK. With all this money on the line, I have given it a lot of thought. I have been doing research for many years. I know that I will be happier.

Mahlatse Nkuna | mg.co.za
Zema Sokhanyile, 29

Zema Sokhanyile, 29

Founder of Mie Cup menstrual cup startup
Mie Cup menstrual cup startup
Muizenburg, Cape Town

A menstrual cup made in South Africa by a struggling socialist stuck in a capitalist society.

Own your period. That is the motto that Zema Sokhanyile wants to spread with her menstrual cup brand. As society moves into more environmentally-friendly ways of life, menstruation should not be left behind, and this is why Sokhanyile created the Mie Cup — a 100% medical-grade silicone menstrual cup. The reusable alternative menstrual product is free of the industrial plastic chemical bisphenol and latex.

Sokhanyile is also an assistant marine engineer in the South African Navy, but it was her commitment and love to black feminist principles that led her to create Mie Cup.

“I’m an intersectional feminist who believes in social justice, and I’m struggling socialist stuck in a capitalist society. In an alternative universe, I’d be a nomad who follows the summer,” she says.

Founding the online menstrual cup startup is one of the highlights of her life.

Sokhanyile grew up in a village called Brooks Nek in the Eastern Cape, in a house full of cousins as well as her three brothers. It was her mother and grandmother who instilled in her a strong sense of independence, choice and freedom to express herself.

“They never assigned gender roles, and we all grew up knowing the world belongs to women too. These two women gave me what in hindsight one would call feminist education … and it can be translated through the values instilled in us,” she explains. “They never cared whether or not I wanted to get married, have children or the type of career I chose. It was always a choice, and they were supportive at all times.”

In addition to her mother and grandmother, Rihanna and black feminists inspire her to be a better person.

“My desire is to see all black women free in this world, taking up spacing and owning it.”

Although she has achieved what many can only dream of, Sokhanyile’s journey wasn’t easy. She failed Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand, but later completed Mechanical Engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

“The biggest challenge I face with the Mie Cup is beliefs. Many women and young girls who menstruate lack understanding of their genital anatomy and cultural taboos. This is largely due to miseducation by the patriarchal society we live in, and therefore many aren’t willing to try tampons, let alone menstrual cups.”

Sokhanyile and her business partner take their time to educate their customers and anyone else who has questions about menstrual cups and menstruation in the hope that this information demystifies menstrual health.

Pontsho Pilane | mg.co.za
Dr Salome Maswime, 37

Dr Salome Maswime, 37

Head of Global Surgery
University of Cape Town
Soweto

Being a young, brilliant black woman comes with its own challenges, even as a doctor.

Salome Maswime wears many hats. A gynaecologist by training, she is also an associate professor and the head of global surgery at the University of Cape Town — and she’s the president of the South African Clinician Scientists Society. She graduated as a doctor from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and later became a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist. She also has a doctorate in the field and has won numerous awards recognising her contributions to advancing medicine in South Africa and on the continent.

Maswime describes herself as young, hardworking and incredibly passionate about life, equity and justice. “I love doing new things, and I’m not afraid of challenges.”

She comes from Botlokwa in Limpopo but grew up in Venda and Polokwane. Her parents are her biggest inspiration and role models. There are many women who inspire her, especially South African women in leadership positions in the healthcare and education sectors. “I love women who are fearless, honest, and who are disrupting and changing how things are done,” she says.

Maswime considers completing her doctorate in obstetrics and gynaecology as her biggest accomplishment, because the journey opened up a whole new world of opportunities in research and global health. “At the time, very few doctors were doing PhDs and as a young specialist, I was one of very few women who had chosen that path. Many accolades followed after that, but they all came from the work I had started during my PhD.”

She is not shy to celebrate her career achievements, but being a young, brilliant black woman comes with its own challenges — from the lack of trust she experiences as a young woman in senior positions to being mistaken for a medical student, and being asked to call the person she reports to. “A lot of people still struggle to see young women like me as competent, hard-working and talented,” she says.

But choosing to focus on her work helps her to overcome these misapprehensions, because she’s learnt to address incidents when she has been misunderstood or undermined.

“Sometimes we are called ‘equity candidates’ but there are no ‘equity qualifications’. We work hard and persevere, but we have to work even harder to gain acceptance and trust.”

Pontsho Pilane | mg.co.za