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In Women’s Month, we pay homage to the role of women in our society and commemorate the women’s march against pass laws on 9 August 1956, in which 20 000 women marched on Pretoria’s Union Buildings.
So let’s remember some of the women who inspired us, fought for our freedom, broke down barriers and smashed glass ceilings. The selection below comes from the first season of 21 Icons, a photography and documentary project, that bills itself as 'a visual celebration of the lives of [South African] men and women who have shaped the world around them for the better'.
Sophia Williams de Bruyn
Sophia Williams de Bruyn was just 18 when she (alongside others) led the march on the Union Buildings protesting against the extension of the apartheid pass laws to women. During her school holidays in PE, De Bruyn worked in a textile factory where she became a leader among workers. She joined and climbed the ranks of the Textile Workers Union, and was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU), the precursor to COSATU. She later worked with the Coloured People’s Congress, alongside the ANC in the basement under the Market Theatre. She is the only surviving member of the march’s leaders.
Lillian Cingo is a top neurosurgical nurse and counselling psychologist. She studied medicine while in exile in the United Kingdom, and earned accolades (and even met the Queen) as her work in that field gained recognition. She returned to South Africa in 1994. For almost 14 years, for nine months of the year, she lived in and worked on the Phelophepa train that functioned as a travelling clinic providing health providing health care in remote and rural corners of the country.
As one of South Africa’s internationally top-selling authors, Nadine Gordimer was well known. She was awarded the Booker in 1974 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, and her writing has a strong ethical and political focus. She was also an anti-apartheid political activist, and was a member of the ANC. During his trial in 1962, Gordimer helped Nelson Mandela edit his stirring (and now legendary) 'I am prepared to die' speech.
Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi is one of our top fine art painters and artists. She took her first painting lesson at 27. She was working as a domestic cleaner at the time, but had always had a passion for art, and it ran in the family – her grandmother was a traditional painter of walls and floors. She studied at the White Studio in Sophiatown, and began exhibiting in the late 70s. Thereafter, she began to really earn as a painter. She was awarded a Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1989, is a Fulbright scholar, and received the Order of Ikhamanga from the national government in 2004.
Evelina Tshabalala won her first marathon barefoot, and her second one too. Twenty years after she took up marathoning, Tshabalala set her mind to mountaineering, going on to summit some of the world’s highest mountains, including Everest. She is also living with HIV, and on ARV treatment. She was diagnosed in 2003 – and made the choice to open about her status with her family and community, advocating for testing and fighting against the myth and stigma still surrounding this disease.
Today she’s primarily known for her storytelling, poetry and writing, but Gcina Mhlophe is an accomplished playwright, actor and journalist too. She’s also an activist and freedom fighter. This polyglot tells stories in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa, and is a prolific author with over 25 titles to her name, including publications she has written, contributed to or collaborated on (excluding her journalistic work).
Yvonne Chaka Chaka
The 'Princess of Africa', Yvonne Chaka Chaka is a world-renowned singer, songwriter and a UN goodwill ambassador. The songstress has performed alongside Annie Lennox, Bono, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Her top hit – Umqombothi, released in 1988 – is still a national favourite, playing on radios across the country. Today, she is as well know for her advocacy work for many causes, including TB, Malaria and HIV/Aids.
The second season of 21 Icons was recently launched, and the third is about to be released. As with last year’s season, the project seeks to 'celebrate those who have achieved success and widespread recognition, as well as individuals whose work has been conducted without prior acclaim'. The team creates short films and written text on the chosen icons, as well as fine art portrait photographs which are auctioned off to benefit charity. Women of the second season include Frene Ginwala and Pregs Govender, among others.
The third season celebrates young people making waves, including Caster Semenya, entrepreneur Catherine Constantinides and musician Zahara Mkutukane. The third season launches In early September.
See 21icons.com for more.
Main image: In a previously unreleased photo, Helen Sebedi is photographed on location during a portrait shoot entitled 'Life's Work', on June 21, 2012 in Parktown, Johannesburg, as part of Adrian Steirn's 21 Icons South Africa series.