Quick fire 5:
1. Coffee, black or with milk?
Hot milk. If you want to be very accurate, it's a double espresso with extra hot milk on the side.
2. What is your most used emoji?
3. If you could invite any 3 people to dinner for the night, who would you invite?
Oprah Winfrey, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Helen Suzman
4. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
5. If there was a movie made about your life, which actress would you choose to play you?
Taraji Henson from Empire
Could you tell me a little bit about your life right now?
I was recently appointed the Executive Director of ‘Beautiful Gate’ (an NGO based in Lower Crossroads, Cape Town that cares for and protects children, empowers and preserves families and mobilizes communities to do the same). The hand over of leadership was in October last year, but November/December time in the NGO world is Christmas party and programme graduation season, so I hadn’t really taken over until the beginning of this year. In January I was trying to establish myself in the new role as well as determine how I wanted to work, but in March everything changed! Corona is not my friend. Everyone kept saying “You were born for a time such as this” and I kept thinking, “If I hear that one more time, I am going to lose my mind!” I think Corona has forced me, as a leader, to be innovative, to think about things differently. Trying to keep an organization as it is, as a new person coming in, is challenging in itself and then having to deal with lockdown and coming up with new ideas makes it that much more challenging. I’ve had to think of new ways to encourage my staff, empower them, empower myself, lead myself, and lead them. At the end of the day, I realized it’s about making sure that the organization still supports the families and the kids we serve and that we keep growing.
I am also a mother of four sons – one in his 30’s, one in his 20’s, another 19-year-old and one who is 13 turning 14, but in his mind, he is already 14. I am also married to Brian, who is a pastor.
What gets you up in the morning?
What gets me up in the morning is knowing that I am part of creating opportunities for kids who are in the same position that I was in many years ago. Not that I am going to single-handedly change everything overnight, but it’s almost like being a gardener: you prepare the earth or the soil for something that, when planted & taken care of, will eventually flourish. There is potential for our country. We have so many issues, but there is something special about South Africa. When we decide we are going to do something, there is unity. There are certainly divides, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about us as a country where you always feel hopeful. I think the Lord, and the difference that I make in people’s lives and that they make in my life, is the reason I wake up. I am an optimist by nature though.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your life was like growing up?
I was born in Gugulethu, but I grew up in Crossroads (where I am working now) during the Apartheid regime. In the time of ‘black power’ in the 80s, the schools in the townships were full of riots so my parents sent me to the Eastern Cape. I went there for a short while and then came back to Cape Town. The 80s & 90s were a very volatile time in SA where you didn’t see beyond your township as a black person and you didn’t think that there was anything outside of it. In 1990, when Mandela was released from prison, I went to the Parade. I ran away from home and then I got a hiding when I got back, but I was so happy. You know when you get a hiding, but you don’t even care because you’re so satisfied. When I saw Mandela and Winnie I was like, “Yes, finally!”
For all my life I was a straight-A student and then in 1991 I failed matric because I fell pregnant. At that stage, it was not easy for me to see my child as a blessing because I was a young 19-year-old who had a child, was single and had just failed. As I grew as a mother and as a woman, I realized that it is easy to let things like that define you, but you have to look at it and say, “Okay, what lessons have I learnt from whatever has happened and why did it happen? Do I have other options?”
In 1995 I went to ‘YWAM’ (Youth With A Mission). A friend of mine told me they were looking for a Youth Pastor (I wasn’t even a Christian), but I thought I was going to Hollywood! I was like, “Yoh, I am free!”, only to find out it was 20 minutes away from my house. It was 1995, when black and white people were not really friends yet and we were not really interacting with one another. When I arrived there, I got assigned to a room where it was just me and 4 white girls. I thought, “I am going to die! This is the death of me, I am not waking up!”. I also didn’t speak English and I didn’t know how to get home, so I was kind of stuck there. However, I think it was during this time at YWAM, where I fell in love with the beauty of different people. I think from ’95, I realized that we had deprived ourselves of knowing one another and learning from one another and actually growing together. I know we are still trying to do this now and I think we could do even better.
What dreams did you have when you were younger?
I wanted to be a doctor or a civil engineer. At the time, for black people, these were not options. My options included being a teacher, a nurse, or a lawyer maybe. I loved Maths and Science, but I think when I failed matric, I lost the love for those two subjects because I thought I wasn’t good enough. Later on I realized that life is not about what you were then, it’s about what you can be in the future.
How has the way your life has panned out so far differed or been similar to those dreams?
When I later learned English, I began to have a passion to teach people to be bilingual. I’ve seen time and time again how many times things can go wrong due to miscommunication. Even now, working at Beautiful Gate, I realize how many times people miss each other due to a language barrier. So, I started my own translation business.
I started out working in hospitals because of an experience I had where I almost lost my baby due to the fact that I didn’t understand the question that I was asked. I thought they had asked me if I had planned the child, only to find out later that they had asked if I wanted to keep the child to which I had said “no.” So even though I didn’t turn out to be a doctor, I was still working in hospitals.
I then realized that if I were to look for a job, no one was going to hire me, even though I had worked with international students and various universities. Nobody would hire me until I had a simple piece of paper (my matric certificate)! So, I went back to school when I was 40 years old to finish my matric. I completed it in 6 months and then after that, I went on to study a 2-year post graduate diploma in Business at GSB. While I was running my translation business, I became a member of the board at Beautiful Gate. I had also volunteered there during my younger years. I have been involved with them, in and out, for about 26 years. And then they snatched me up to be the Director!
Who was your role model growing up and why?
I think I would say my mom. She might not have had the same beliefs as me, but she was my role model in the sense that she was a strong woman. She ran her own business and even when my parents divorced, my mom was always very strong. I didn’t spend much time with her but when I look back, I see how she was so comfortable in her own skin. I liked the fact that she stood by her values and the things that she believed in, but she was also very able to acknowledge the things that were good in other people. It’s only now that she’s passed away that I realize how she was able to stand for what she believed in, yet also had time to acknowledge what others around her believed too.
The obvious answer would be for me to say that ladies like Helen Suzman and Winnie Madikizela were my role models. The women who fought for SA to be what it is today. Yet, I can’t say that at the time I was thinking about role models. I was just living life. Life was just a survival. I do look back at my mom though and how she always looked after the family, ran the business, how she took people in, how she took care of them and took them to school and all those kinds of things. I look at myself, in terms of being a pastor and what we are doing at Beautiful Gate, and recognize how I resonate more with her, even though we did not share the same faith.
What personal challenge(s) did you face as a young person and how have those shaped you?
For all my life I was a straight-A student and then I failed matric after falling pregnant. I think if you are a high achiever, there are high expectations that go with that and it’s almost harder to stand up and walk again when something like that happens. I think it took time for me to realize that it was just a setback, something I could work with. Sometimes, as women, we feel like we don’t have any other options. Failing helped me to realize that a fail is not the end – a fail is an opportunity to say I can do this! When you make mistakes, you get disappointed, but they shouldn’t destroy you completely.
By 21, I had a second child. I raised the two boys on my own before I married my husband who then adopted them. I knew what I wanted in life though and it was not a case of, “Oh I’m so helpless and now I will take any man that comes along.” I knew what I wanted, and I knew who I wanted to walk with. That is something that a lot of the kids in the townships don’t have. They think that if they fail and have a child then that’s it. I want them to know that it’s not it! There’s more to life than that failure. You have to set your own goals and not the goals that people have set up for you.
How do you use your current platform to bring a positive influence in SA’s young people?
I would like people to look at my life and look at what Beautiful Gate is doing and see that we are not just a service delivery organization, but we are a life-changing organization. We are a place that helps to create opportunities for young people to get a job one day so that they can care for their families. Yes, there are resources that have been poured into the schools through Beautiful Gate, but it’s about principals and teachers looking at themselves as change-makers, not just people who have been paid to do a job. I desire the same thing for our staff. I want people to see Beautiful Gate as a place that can change and empower. Whether it’s a mother, or whether it’s a child. I want it to be a place of rolling empowerment.
What are you still hoping to accomplish in the next couple of years?
I would love to see the heart of Beautiful Gate, which is reconnecting kids with their families and empowering families, being truly lived out. In the 80s and 90s, there was something called ‘Ubuntu’, where we had a sense of “I care for your child, not because I am going to be paid for it, but because I care for the wellbeing of the child”. I would love to see that being brought back into the community. It lessens the crime levels when everybody looks at a child as their own child, and everybody looks at their neighbor’s house as their own house.
What piece of advice would you give to the young women of South Africa?
Don’t stop dreaming! Don’t think that your life is stuck! There is no job that is too big for you. Loyalty, and being trustworthy with the smallest things, creates a work ethic that will help you in the future. As women, we need to encourage one another. We need to find women who will speak honestly into our lives. Women who will tell us things that we don’t like, but who will say them anyway because they love us. Dreaming is about knowing where you are today coupled with a vision for where you want to go. When you know where to go, you are able to stand up and keep walking.
Know your story. You might need time to heal, but then stand up and keep going! Create a space where you feel it can be sustainable for you. If you are an entrepreneur, go for it! If you can sew, think of different ways to use that talent. We can’t be defined by a lack of education or resources, we need to be defined by the will to say, “I will make something out of nothing!”.
We need each other as women, we are communal beings. We need intergenerational women around us. Young women often think they don’t need older women and older women think they cannot learn from young women. All of us could use the zeal that the young women bring and the wisdom that the older generation bring too. We need an openness in our hearts to recognize that we all need each other.
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