Nelson Mandela Foundation

This is a speech, delivered by Sumaya Hendricks, Dialogue Analyst at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, at a 10 August 2021 Sol Plaatjie University event marking South Africa's Women's Month. 

Deputy Vice-chancellor, Prof Jean Baxen; Programme Director, Ms Caroline Hoorn; Acting Head of the Humanities School, Prof Karen Haire – thank you so much for being a part of this with me.

I am extremely humbled and honoured to have received this invitation to speak at this engagement and I look really forward to engaging with the SPU community and everyone else joining us.

In reflecting on what I wanted to speak about today, I knew that I did not want to centre this discussion about men. A Women’s Day speech can easily become about men even if it wasn’t intentioned, especially when we speak about equality because it then suggests we want to be equal in relation to something. While there are serious issues of patriarchy and misogyny that we need to grapple with and overcome, I didn’t today to be about men because I think they get enough of our mental energy and time. What I am hoping is that our time together is uplifting, inspirational and about us, and about developing and creating a vision for ourselves.

And with this in mind, I have structured my talk today around four pieces of advice. My intention is to plant a seed or water a seed that has already been planted, and to help move you in some way towards reaching your full potential.

Weaved into these four pieces of advice, are stories of incredible women. I wanted to use story telling because there is a collective of women that we can draw inspiration from – and the thing about inspiration is that we can draw inspiration from women from different sectors, of different nationalities and races, and even from women that we don’t share similar view points with. Sometimes we may think that we don’t have anything to learn from people who are different to us or people we feel have different viewpoints than us but we can ‘separate the meat from the bones’ which basically means that we can take that which we consider beneficial ie. the ‘meat’ and separate it from that which we want to discard and ignore ie. the bones. There are soo many unbelievable women doing extraordinary things and doing wonderfully ordinary things that we can take inspiration from.

Before delving into these pieces of advice, I did want to make a disclaimer that I am still very much a work in progress and I don’t want give any false impression that I have my life all figured out because I think one is always in a stage of figuring things out as we get older and as we enter new and different phases in our lives.

The first piece of advice is around grit, and a good book to read on this is Grit by Angela Duckworth. Now there are people who have passion – they know what they are passionate about BUT they may lack perseverance. Then there are also people who have perseverance, so they are willing to work hard and to put in the work BUT they don’t know what they are passionate about – in other words, they don’t know what they must work hard in. Now grit is the combination of both passion and perseverance.

For those wanting to be gritty, which I am sure is all of us, it’s really hard to be gritty and to develop gritty-ness by yourself all the time. So my advice here is to have people in your circle that are gritty – they do not need to have the same passions as you, but if they have passion and perseverance & are motivated, this can rub off on you. It’s obviously important to have friends that we can talk to, that are there for us etc but when you are forming friendships, also think about keeping gritty friends around you - they can inspire you and motivate you, just by observing them and seeing how they push themselves.

Now for those that feel that they have perseverance but may not know where their passions lie, university and student life in general offers an opportunity to help find and develop your passions. Involve yourself in different societies or start societies, take up leadership positions, get involved in organising things – passion is what you can find as a by-product of doing these things. Even if you don’t necessary find what your passions are exactly, it can provide a platform for you to develop and grow yourself.

For those, that do know what they are passionate about but feel that they lack perseverance. Here I want to say that developing discipline in one’s life is really in integral. You know we sometimes have that friend, the talented one with so much potential but they lack discipline – and a lack of discipline can be detrimental. Here I want to say two things – one is push yourself to follow through on things you have committed to. If you start something, finish it – even if it means that sometimes it’s just about getting over the line and the outcome is not Noble Prize worthy or Oscar worthy, the success will be in completing it. Completing it despite not feeling motivated to do it, and completing it even though there were more fun things to do or watch.

The second, is to develop routines in your day that can help develop discipline that will rub off into other areas in your life. Personally for me its prayer, and the discipline from having these regular actions in my day, regardless of whether I am in the mood or not, or whether there are important meetings happening etc helps to develop a discipline that filters through into other areas of life. So for example, you can commit yourself to reading for 20-minutes every evening and you push yourself to do it even if you don’t feel like. Or commit yourself to exercising for 15-minutes every morning. Develop good routines in your day, and use that as a launching pad to develop the life you want.  

So develop grit as a way of investing in yourself, and like an investment the earlier you do it the better. You can think about it like this – say you want to cash out an investment when you are 60 years old. Now investing R1000 at 20 years old and 40 years are not the same. The earlier you invest in yourself, the more you will be able to reap the rewards later on and the more these investments will multiply.

When I think about grittiness, the story of a South African woman that comes to mind is that of Saartjie van de Kaap. Saartjie van de Kaap was born in 1775, and was born into slavery. She was emancipated from slavery as a young girl around the age of four years old. Both her parents were also slaves that were manumitted or emancipated.

Her father purchased two properties in Dorp Street in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town – now one of these properties became the site of the Auwal Masjid, and is the first and oldest mosque built in South Africa – and is still in use today. The Auwal Masjid came into existence during the first British occupation of the Cape and was the main religious institution for many years.

In 1809, at the age of 34 years old, Saartjie van die Kaap went on to purchase these properties from her mother who had become the owner of it when her father passed on.

Saartjie van die Kaap was really a visionary because she had foresight. She wanted to make sure that even beyond her lifetime and well into the future, that the mosque on the property that she had purchased continued to be of benefit to the community. So before she died at the age of 72 (in 1847), in her will she had stated that the property at number 28 Dorp Street (on which the Auwal Mosque was situated) should remain a mosque never to be sold, or mortgaged – and in so doing, she preserved this institution for generations to come.

So here is a woman, who went from slave to landowner – that is what young people would call a serious hustle. Not only just a landowner but she went onto do something of benefit to her community for her time and well into the future such that the land that she endowed continues to house the Auwal Masjid.

The second piece of advice I want to share with you, is to get used to rejection and to not let the fear of rejection stop you from pursuing opportunities – you miss all the shots you don’t take. So don’t be afraid of asking for what you want because you are worried someone will say no - don’t be afraid of having the discussion about being promoted and about a salary increase, don’t be afraid for applying for that job because you don’t think you meet all the requirements – do it. Because the regret from not trying may haunt you more than any rejection.

And on that note I want to tell you about a South African woman who I personally take a lot of inspiration from. So there was this young woman from the Eastern Cape, from Port Elizabeth. She and her family were forcibly removed from their home in Southend during Apartheid. She later went onto be the only daughter of 4 daughters to go to university, after getting a bursary from Coloured Affairs to study social work at the University of Western Cape (UWC). After working for a few years to pay back her bursary, she relocated to Uitenhage.

So at the age of 23-years-old, she found herself having to find a job in Uitenhage but at the time, there were no social work posts in the area.  

Now in looking for a job, this young social worker came to meet someone from the management committee in Uitenhage and they told her that she could put together a proposal and motivate why a social worker should be hired as the council did not have one. For background, during this period the council were busy with forced evictions owing to the Group Areas Act. So this young 23-year old woman asked herself – what is it that I can do to make a contribution in the space I am in now. She went onto write a proposal for the municipality that they create a post for her – in short, she took her shot, and they accepted her proposal.

As outlined in her proposal, she would be responsible for social issues which arose, as any social worker would, but she realised that there was an opportunity to do more than this. She saw a gap. People were being forcibly evicted from their homes and having lived through forced evictions herself, she knew the trauma that it entailed and what it would be like for other people in similar situations. At the time, there were only admin related people at the housing office and she was a realist, and thought how more traumatic will this programme of forced evictions be if it was solely left to be administered by the staff within that office.

What she realised she could do is to give people the opportunity to at least choose their neighbours in the council houses where they were being forced to relocate to – and this is not something the council had considered. She would ask them if they have someone – maybe a family member or a friend that they would like to have as their neighbour. She told the council that she was going to do this because people were coming from established communities and their homes were being physically broken owing to the brutality of apartheid, and she wanted to at least give them an opportunity to maintain some sense of community and some semblance of home.

She recognised that she couldn’t change the Apartheid system but there was at least something she could do that in some way could make it even a bit easier for people – she realised that she could do nothing or she could do this, and doing nothing may have been a double injury.  

I am very grateful to be able to call this woman my mother, and to see firsthand the ways in which throughout her life she sought to add value – continuously asking herself the question, what can I do to add value in the space that I am in now.

When speaking to this life motto of ‘you miss all the shots you don’t take’, I do want to raise an issue of gate keeping, racism and patriarchy by sharing a personal story.

When I was applying for my PhD, I was looking for a supervisor and I had met this old white male professor. He told me that it was unlikely that I would get funding; he told me that instead of applying to the Wits education department I should rather apply elsewhere; and that if I wasn’t going to be studying full-time, I should know that it means it’s unlikely that I would get accepted. Now he said all of this despite the fact that from my research before meeting him I saw that he had supervised a young white male who was a part-time student and that had a similar topic to the one I was interest in. I was flabbergasted at how someone based in an education department could be so discouraging towards a student. I left his office feeling so demotivated, which was really a pity because I really had to build up the confidence to actively reach out to professors and try to get meetings which can be a very daunting thing to do. Thankfully, my PhD application was already in and two supervisors put their hands up for me and said they would like to supervise me – so despite his discouragement, I was accepted and I did get funding, and I am now entering the final stages of my PhD. I wanted to speak to this experience because the ‘you miss all the shots you don’t take’ mentality does mean you will come up against a host of attitudes and behaviour that will work to discourage you, but push on and take your shot.

The third piece of advice I want to give you is to dream a full life for yourself. I always considered myself as someone who was hard working and ambitious, but I remember getting to 27 years old and thinking, now what? And when I reflected on this, I realised that sub-consciously I think I had thought that I would work really hard for a few years and then life would take over. I would have kids and instead of me leading my life, my life would lead me – and I attribute this to the messages that society feed women. So dream a full-life, and lead your life instead of letting your life just lead you.

In speaking about dreaming a full life for oneself, I wanted to share the story of a North African women named Fatima al-Fihri. She was born in Tunisia, and her family when she was young relocated to the city of Fez in Morocco. We unfortunately do not know a lot about her life, but we do know that both she and her sister Maryam were well-educated. Fatima al-Fihri wanted to do something for the benefit of society, and wanted to give back to the community that had embraced her and her family. So she looked around and saw a gap and realised that a place of higher learning was needed.

So having identified this gap, she used her wealth - that she had inherited - to found the Al-Qarawiyyin University in the city of Fez in Morocco. It had a courtyard, prayer hall, library and schoolrooms. It offered subjects in Islamic theology and law, poetry, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, geography, science and mathematics. The al-Qarawiyyin University is extraordinary because it was founded more than 1 000 years ago and continues to be in operation, making it the oldest university in the world that is still in operation today – and so it predates European universities like the University of Oxford by about atleast 200 years.

So here we have an African woman, who wanted to do something of benefit, she identified a need and used the resources she had for the benefit of society and built a university that is still standing. Fatima al-Fihri dreamed a full life by thinking far beyond the years that even she would be alive to see.

Also on the point of dreaming a full life, often when we speak about gender equality, the discussion becomes about equal access to employment, equal pay as well as mechanisms which help facilitate this access. This is an integral dimension of equality, especially in a context like South Africa where firstly women of colour faced and continue to face a double barricade to the workplace as a result of being both black (broadly defined) and being a woman; and this dimension of equality is also important in a context like South Africa because the reality is that for many of us we carry the financial and material aspirations of our families, and central to that is having good employment. But I do want, both for you and for me, to think beyond this as we plan full lives for ourselves.

I once read a tweet by a young teenager that said they do not dream of employment. What I think this young person was trying to say is that they do not occupy themselves in thinking about what job they are going to have when they grow up. There is a part of me that resonated with this because what we should be thinking about it is the contribution we are going to make in society, what kind of people we want to be, what are we going to do to develop ourselves and what kind of problems we want to solve. Especially in a world where having a qualification in a certain area does not limit you and does not box you in into one particular sector.

If we are to achieve a more equal society, our measure cannot simply be about whether a woman occupies a job that a man previously held or has traditionally held. Our focus should be on reaching our full potential not in relation to men but in relation to ourselves because I think holding men as the standard of success is a way of holding us back, because we have the potential to exceed what any man we know has achieved. However, if we are constantly trying to use the success of men as a benchmark to gauge our personal success then in so doing we can overlook the even greater successes that we can achieve; Overlook the institutions we can build, and help shape and influence; Overlook how we can contribute towards not only the here and now but future generations. 

If the Fatima al-Fihri’s and Saartjie van die Kaap’s of this world had simply looked around and aspired to do what the men around them were doing, they would have limited themselves, and their communities and the world would have been poorer for it.  

The final piece of advice is more of a cautionary tale. As I mentioned, I am currently doing my PhD, my topic is centred on looking at the learning experiences of interns on government graduate internship programmes. One of the interns I interviewed shared with me the following (these are their words):

In different units it’s difficult because mostly if you are an Intern and especially if you are a lady, you [sic] become a target. That is one thing that I’ve seen in the corridors, So you’ve become a target where they check you… “Okay this is how she dresses.” And then you become a target of the other males who are permanently there. So they see you as a target like, “Oh I can get this one and then I can date him or her.” (end of quote)

So while you are at university preparing to enter the workplace, you do need to be aware that there may be people who will use their power to take advantage of you; you make come up against workplace harassment; your colleague may say inappropriate things that make you feel uncomfortable. This quote that I just read to you is not from 1990 or 2010, it is from 2020. You need to know that you have a right to speak up and speak out; to change culture; to report things that make you feel uncomfortable; to “make a scene” - because patriarchy’s time is up. 

So as I wrap up - develop grit; remember that you miss all the shots you don’t take; dream a full life for yourself; and as for the last piece of advice, we can call that screw the patriarchy. The stories I shared with you was done with the hope of inspiring, both myself and you, to think about what we can do to develop and grow ourselves, and our communities. 

And on that note – thank you for being here and for listening, and I look forward to the engagement. There are really so many women that we can draw inspiration from like Charlotte Maxeke - the first black South African woman to earn a university degree -  who started the Bantu Women's League amongst many other organisations, and a woman who I think that is really overlooked in South African history. And perhaps during the engagement session, you can share stories with us about women who inspire you to be gritty, to take shots and to lead a full life.