By Ntombenhle Khathwane

As a black woman, like other black women, I have it tough. Especially in the world of business, corporate and academia: black women have to work harder than any other, including black men, to gain recognition, promotion or even entry. Since I left formal employment and started building a business, I have encountered overt racism from white male and female buyers in the retail space and I have to work hard at keeping my eye on the ball and resolute towards building my business. Sometimes my resolve to succeed threatens to harden into bitterness and draw me into the victim game or blame game, which I refuse to be a part of. I often have to dig deep to remember and take action in a way that says I am not defined by circumstances that are not of my doing, nor am I defined by biased perceptions of me as a black woman by others. This I do with conviction, remembering how Mandela did just that.

When Mandela died last year I broke down and cried everyday until his burial and I still cry every time I watch a good documentary about him. I cry not only because he fought for the right for me to be whatever I choose to be as a black person, but also because he represents what I feel I will not evolve to become as a human being in my lifetime.

It’s true what “they” say, it’s mostly hardships that change us, going through difficulty can either give us a victim mentality or it can give us the mentality of an ego-less hero; hardships can help us evolve towards our higher self that is defined by love and compassion for all beings. A way of being that gives others permission and courage to also be their best selves. Mandela reached that level of evolution.

Mandela was born and raised in an era that was dominated and defined by values of patriarchy. The environment in which he was raised and lived as a black man and the environment enforced by apartheid was also very patriarchal. But when Mandela became president after the hardships of spending most of his adult life in prison, he emerged a free man in many ways. He was no longer bound by cultural and historical definitions that divided and defined societies and still do.

Even before the Constitution was completed, Mandela said: “We ought to imprint in the supreme law of the land, firm principles upholding the rights of women.” Mandela recognised that although all South Africans were free and equal in the eyes of the law, women still had to fight for that equality in real terms because cultural and historical perceptions that discriminate or do not recognise women still exist.

It is including this understanding that Mandela’s passion for prioritising children and education became central to Mandela’s life after he retired as president. In the democratic dispensation, Mandela envisaged that education would be the cornerstone in raising future generations that are not based on biases of the past, whether they be gender or race biases. In a speech in 1995 Mandela said: “The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation. Our previous system emphasised the physical and other differences of South Africans with devastating effects. We are steadily but surely introducing education that enables our children to exploit their similarities and common goals, while appreciating the strength in their diversity. We need to educate our young people to become adults who cherish the values of respect for women and children.”

Mandela believed that no struggle in the human experience should be championed by the people affected alone, he was a strong proponent that all people should act against any and all injustices against a people anywhere in the world. Educating future generations to be intolerable towards injustices on any people were values Mandela sought to see every child learn in an education system. He not only spoke about equality for women, he acted it. In his first Cabinet he made history by appointing a third of them as women, and the first speaker of Parliament of the democratic South Africa was a woman, Frene Ginwala. Mandela remained dedicated to ending violence against women throughout his life, it didn’t end with his presidency. During the 46664 Aids charity concert in 2005 he reiterated that the way a nation treats its women is the ultimate measure of that nation’s success.

Mandela wished for women, especially black women, to have the same opportunities as all people. And although statistically there are more women in institutions of higher learning than men, the opportunities for employment or success in business are still skewed towards men. Managerial positions in corporate are less likely to be given to black women. There are many bleak statistics that can be found regarding the condition of black women in South Africa, but as I remember and celebrate Mandela this week, I evoke in me his spirit to either not recognise the rules or to change the rules.

As we celebrate the life and values of Mandela on the anniversary of his death, which falls during the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign, I choose to remember Mandela the feminist who believed and worked towards women having the same social, economic and political opportunities as men in the real lived sense and not just on paper. I renew my commitment to always work with women, to challenge the status quo that constantly seeks to assign us to being second-rate citizens. I choose to contribute to the struggle of gender equality in this way because when we women change how we see ourselves, change how we see each other and change how we allow others to treat us as black women, we will have made huge strides towards changing the rules permanently. As Mandela always celebrated the courage and unity of the women of 1956, we modern women need to continue drawing from their example on how women united on a mission can make a difference and break barriers.

Ntombenhle Khathwane is an entrepreneur who writes and researches the politics of identity and social justice.


  • Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards the continent’s development. The Tutu Fellows are practitioners spread across various social, political, economic, environmental and activist sectors throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last six years the Tutu fellows have formed a strong alumnus of leaders communicating across country borders with the aim of realising the potential and power of a truly pan-African continent. The opinions shared by the Archbishop Tutu Fellows are not necessarily those of the African Leadership Institute or of our patron, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.


Tutu Fellows

Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards...

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