By Tristan Cooke, BJourn student
As women's month drew to a close for 2021, Rhodes University connected virtually with some of its inspiring alumnas, including Dr Mandy Hlengwa, Ayanda Mbanga, Janet Heard and Kim Cloete. Leboghang Nkambule, 2021 Student Representative Council President, also provided a current Rhodes University perspective, connecting past and present experiences.
The discussion was facilitated by Laura Wener, one of the founding members and donors of the Ntombesizwe scholarship. Wener's facilitation of the conversation was no less than brilliant as she navigated the success women had achieved in their careers and how important it is to take a step toward paying it forward to inspire females of the future. The Ntombesizwe scholarship provides funding to the university for a girl child every year, and an important aspect of this discussion was how to best inspire the black girl child.
Before Wener opened the floor for welcomes, she shared alarming statistics. The latest quarterly unemployment statistics show that the labour force is more favourable to men; males are more likely to be doing paid work while women are more likely to be doing unpaid work, regardless of race. The female unemployment rate sits at 36.8%, while for males, it is significantly lower at 32.4%. Black African women sit at 41% unemployment. Wener left the audience with a question: "How do we put the power in the hands of the young black girl?"
Professor Adéle Moodly, Rhodes University Registrar, welcomed all present to the event. She called for a moment's silence for those who have lost their lives to gender-based violence and those who have passed due to COVID-19. Moodly, in closing, praised the initiative taken by the University, stating, "The voices of women, on issues of women, affecting women and girl children need to be elevated, and Rhodes University is again taking one important step in engaging its alumni.”
Dr Mandy Hlengwa, Senior Lecturer at Rhodes University, set the scene by sharing aspects of the matriarchal family she was raised in. She reminisced about women in her family, who were all "doers" – such as her mother, who built a school from the ground up and a late aunt who built a house with her bare hands and mud brick to look as good as any conventional home. Dr Hlengwa highlighted the importance of giving back within the academic space through money, time and networking.
Ms Ayanda Mbanga, a life coach, spoke about the importance of being present. The hardships that women face enforce a counterproductive victim mentality, and whilst these ills are not to be discounted, they hold the female hostage. "Yes, we are women; yes, we are black; but we must not miss out on the good stuff," she said. When women find opportunity, there is a feeling of inadequacy that results in missed opportunities, and the importance lies in taking what you have and growing from it. Mbanga found that to give back is to learn. She writes free book reviews for columns, and in the process, she has the opportunity to take lessons from the reading that she does. "It's never a one-way thing – giving," she said.
Ms Janet Heard, Day Managing Editor at Daily Maverick, spoke about how the structure of newsrooms in the 1990s was utterly male-dominated, especially the elite jobs, such as editors. Whilst gender structures are shifting, women still find that they have to work harder to be heard. She explained that this is due to the entitled perspective of men in the newsroom who expect to be heard. Whilst gender structures shift, race structures remain largely fixed, giving rise to the importance of inspiring the black girl child by paying it forward and creating opportunity for the next generation. The journalism industry remains cutthroat, and Heard highlighted the need for mentorship in newsrooms, passing the baton to the next generation rather than selfishly hoard bylines.
Journalist and Media Specialist Ms Kim Cloete related to Heard's experience, highlighting the patriarchal newsrooms of the 1980s. Cloete referred to women as 'jugglers' and believes they make excellent managers and know how to get things done! The time has now arrived for women to stand up, and the inspiration is focused on the emerging generation. The time of COVID-19 has left people not knowing how to give and left them feeling overwhelmed. Cloete highlighted the need to step out of one's comfort zone in unprecedented times and praised those who had taken that step. "The key to giving back lies in supporting young female entrepreneurs within South Africa's informal economy. To give back is to pay it forward by supporting someone else's legacy," Cloete said.
Leboghang Nkambule gave an overview of the hardships of campus life during times of COVID. The necessity to support students in an online world has affected their academic achievements and mental health. The SRC President highlighted how social justice had underpinned her life with a grandmother who started a soup kitchen to support her community. Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE) provided this platform for Nkambule to help high school female learners be accepted to the university. Nkambule highlighted the importance of nurturing female leadership at the university. "While patriarchal structures have changed in theory, they haven't in practice," she stated. She also highlighted the importance of fundraising initiatives driven by the SRC, such as raising money for sanitary towels to support disenfranchised women.
In closing, Dr ‘Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela, Rhodes University Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Student Affairs, commemorated the first women-focused event hosted by the Alumni Relations and Stakeholder Engagement Office. "There are many lessons to learn from how these ladies have made it their business to grow, give back and pay it forward," Monnapula-Mapesela said. Rhodes University as an institution was acknowledged for setting these women on a path to where they are today.
A new networking portal for Rhodes University alumni: https://rualumniconnect.ru.ac.za/
Rhodes University ‘giving’ page, for those who want to pay it forward: https://www.ru.ac.za/givingtorhodes/
To watch the full webinar: https://youtu.be/F-2nzZyRA44