Meruschka in Turkey

12 Portraits of Inspiring South African Women

Today is National Women’s Day in South Africa. South African Women’s Day, which is a public holiday and falls on 9 August, is different from International Women’s Day on 8 March. The holiday commemorates the Women’s March of 1956, during which 20,000 South African women of all races marched in Pretoria to protest the apartheid pass laws.

On that day in 1956, the protestors sang a struggle song that included the famous line: “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.”

Every time I hear or even think about that sentence, the hairs on my arms stand up.

I didn’t think much about celebrating womanhood before I moved to South Africa. Women’s Day isn’t really a thing in America. We have Mother’s Day but that’s really not the same.

The truth is, before moving to South Africa it never really occurred to me to be proud of being a woman. But now I am. I’m grateful to this country for that.

Also Women’s Day in South Africa is fun. Everyone has the day off, winter is coming to an end, all the restaurants and bars and coffee shops have specials for women. It’s a day for celebrating bad-ass women and not taking life too seriously.

Anyway, I woke up today thinking about all of this, and about all the incredible South African women I’ve met and photographed and blogged about over the years. In celebration of Women’s Day, I’m featuring a few of them in this post.

12 Inspiring South African Women

1) Mama Anna Skhosana

Mama Anna working on Ndebele art
I met Mama Anna Skhosana, an Ndebele beadwork artist, in 2017. Mama Anna is part of a collective of women artists in Mpumalanga province who create incredible sculptures, paintings, and accessories inspired by traditional Ndebele crafts. Read more about the women artists of Mpumalanga.
Mama Anna and finished kudu head
Mama Anna’s finished product.

2) Florence Ngobeni Allen

Florence Ngobeni-Allen
Florence was one of the first friends I made when I moved to South Africa exactly nine years ago in August 2010. Florence is a counsellor, a teacher, an HIV/AIDS activist, and so much more — her story is far too long to tell in this photo caption. Read more about Florence in this post from my “Favorite Joburg People” series.

3) Palesa “Deejay” Manaleng

Athlete Deejay Manaleng training with her coach, Boetie Lourens
In the long list of inspiring South African women I’ve met, Deejay is possibly number one. Deejay is a professional athlete and a journalist, and similar to Florence she has faced down pretty much every challenge that could possibly be thrown her way and emerged victorious. Deejay was paralyzed from the waist down after a cycling accident in 2014, and has since become one of South Africa’s top wheelchair racers and hand cyclists. She is currently working toward qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. I shot this photo of Deejay in 2017 while she was training with her coach, Boetie Lourens. Learn more about Deejay here and follow her on Instagram.

4) Vicki Bain

Vicki and her chocolates
Vicki is the founder of Chocoloza, the best chocolate shop in Joburg. Vicki gave up a successful consulting career to study chocolate-making in Belgium and eventually brought her chocolate magic back to South Africa. I’m so glad she did.

5) Jay Patel

Jay Patel of Langwan Cleaners in downtown Joburg
Jay is the proprietor of Langwan Cleaners in downtown Joburg. I profiled her in February 2019 and nicknamed her “the Mother Teresa of Albert Street”. You’ll have to read the post to understand.

6) Michelle de Villiers

Michelle De Villiers
Michelle was also featured in my 2016 “Favorite Joburg People” series. She owns the Junkie Charity Store on 7th Street in Melville and is the Melville Cat’s original human. I really owe a lot to Michelle and so does the entire suburb of Melville.

7) Lungi Ngqandulo

Lungi walks the fields at Field Berry Farm
Lungi runs the Field Berry Farm, which I featured in my 2017 #Gauteng52 series. A former domestic worker, Lungi had a dream to become a raspberry farmer and she achieved that dream in spectacular fashion. Learn more about the Field Berry Farm on their Facebook page.

8) Katharine Love

Katharine Love in the parlour at Lindfield House
Katharine Love is the brilliant mastermind behind Lindfield House, which is far and away the best kept quirky secret in all of Johannesburg. I have blogged about Lindfield House twice — see here and here — so if you’ve never heard of it before please read these posts and go to Lindfield tomorrow. You won’t regret it.

9) Gail Scott Wilson

Gail Scott Wilson overlooking Joburg
If you have any interest whatsoever in Joburg, you have probably seen Gail’s beautiful photos on Facebook or on her blog, For the Love of Jozi. Gail doesn’t like to be photographed but her unmistakeable bright pink hair pops up in many a Jozi landscape. No one loves this city more than Gail does, and I love her for it.

10) Gertie Dejager

Gertie de Jager of the Blanket Shop in Clarens
Gertie and her sister Minnie ran The Blanket Shop in Clarens, where they sold Basotho blankets and other goods to tourists and the local community, for nearly 70 years. I first blogged about Gertie in 2014 and purchased many blankets from her shop. In early 2018 I heard the shop had closed down due to Gertie and Minnie’s poor health — I’m not sure what’s happened since. I will never forget these two fabulous women and their incredible knowledge of Basotho blankets and culture.

11) Flo Bird

Flo Bird in Holy Family chapel
Flo Bird founded the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust, which later became the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. Flo, pictured here dressed up for Heritage Day in the chapel at Holy Family College, is a legendary heritage activist who has saved many iconic Joburg buildings from destruction. (Read here about her role in saving the historic Rand Steam Laundries.)

12) Meruschka Govender

Meruschka in Turkey
I saved Meruschka for last because I miss her the most. You were the most South African woman I knew, Meruschka, and there will never be another woman like you in any country. I hope you’re still traveling, wherever you are.

Okay now I’m crying so here’s where I finish. Thanks to all of South Africa’s women for being my rocks.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Margaret Urban August 9, 2019 at 5:31 pm

    Damn. Now I’m also crying…. Hug

  • Reply AutumnAshbough August 9, 2019 at 6:17 pm

    Also crying.

  • Reply eremophila August 10, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    A great homage to the wonderful women in your adopted country Heather. Their Spirit always alive.

  • Reply Peggy Laws August 12, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    Wonderful blog Heather and well chosen women icons. Wish I could also add you for all your wonderful blogs and embracing all that is so good about your “adopted” country. Awesome.

  • Reply Catherine Gallice August 28, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    I had missed this blog entry because I was away. Very very interesting. Thank you once again for doing this for all of us.

  • Reply Catherine Gallice August 28, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks again Heather for a wonderful post. I had missed it because I was away. I will be looking up every one of these amazing women.

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