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Cape Town’s fearless females of 2014

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Cape Town’s fearless females of 2014

A look back at six incredible Mother City ladies

These are our six stellar featured women from 2014. Clickthrough for 2015's featured trailblazers.

On Thursday, 9 August 1956, 20 000 women of all races came together to challenge an oppressive government and petition against legislation that required “non-whites” to carry a pass, an identification document designed to curtail freedom of movement during Apartheid. Since the fall of the regime in 1994, the day has been annually commemorated as Women’s Day to highlight the strength and resilience of women during the resistance.

More recently, the South African public holiday’s raison d’etre has broadened – it’s no longer just a celebration of a single act of solidarity, but a day devoted to a more general recognition of the spirit and accomplishment of women. Furthermore, in the past few years, the occasion has been used as a rallying point in the fight for women’s rights.      

Rape, domestic abuse and issues relating to gender inequality are still way too prevalent in a country that has come so far in the fight against discrimination, and the need to use the holiday as an instrument of advocacy and to shine the spotlight on the savvy sisters defying norms is paramount.

So, while there are thousands of courageous ladies showing the world how absolutely amazing women can be, we’ve narrowed our list down to a few in specialist fields – namely: arts and culture, winemaking, altruism, construction, the culinary arts and management consulting – who are flying the flag for the bright, the brainy and the brilliant and serving as a source of inspiration for the masses.

ZOLISWA GILA – CONSTRUCTION

As a young child, this extraordinary lady dreamed of becoming a pilot; today, as an adult, she’s realised her aspiration to be high up in the sky, only she’s done it not as an aviator but as the very first female crane operator in the country.

Back in 2007, the then-unemployed Zoliswa Gila, who currently lives in the township of Philippi, happened to hear that a construction company was recruiting individuals to help build the state-of-the-art Cape Town Stadium for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Not one to turn down an opportunity or be restricted by her gender, she applied for the job, underwent rigorous training alongside heaps of men and was ultimately one of the very few applicants who passed the final exam.

And so Zoliswa became the first in her field and stepped proudly and courageously into a role that has always been stereotyped as a man’s domain. The journey since hasn’t always been an easy one – she’s been faced with discrimination and has struggled to be taken seriously – but this determined young lady and mother has held on to her conviction that women can do absolutely anything men can, even operate heavy machinery, lift massive loads and cast concrete.

Today, Zoliswa works for construction company WBHO and, through hard work and dedication, has gained deep respect from her employers and colleagues. She’s not stopping here though; rather, she’s determined to learn to drive (and fly) everything and anything she can – it would seem that the sky’s, quite literally, the limit for this special Cape Town lady.

GENNA GARDINI – ARTS AND CULTURE

Young Cape Town-based writer and theatre-maker Genna Gardini has the remarkable ability to get down to the essence of what it means to be a woman in modern society by painting witty, poignant pictures on pages and stages.

The gifted wordsmith first began crafting poems and plays at the tender age of five and has gone on to capture larger and larger audiences with her exceptional pieces. At only 28, she has had her work published in multiple magazines and literary journals (like Carapace and Prufrock), has been recognised by the Mail & Guardian as one of the 200 Young South Africans to watch and has pulled in numerous awards, including the 2013 DALRO New Coin Poetry Prize and a Standard Bank Ovation Award for her play Scrape, which showed at the National Arts Festival in 2013.

Her talent is undoubtedly extraordinary, but what makes this local lady stand out most is her knack for telling stories that really resonate with her readers (particularly women) – tales that move and inspire and provoke. As Genna jokingly refers to herself as “just an angry feminist”, both her poems and her productions focus heavily on interrogating gender norms and confines, and so she helps to shed light on those female concerns and issues that often fall through the cracks of ordinary or acceptable conversation.

Now, she aims to complete two more plays (one of which she’s writing for her Masters in Theatre Making), work on her first book of poetry and continue to stay true to her own voice. But despite everything, this outstanding individual still maintains that her greatest challenge to date is simply getting her dirty laundry done – when you’re moving minds with complex storylines and alliteration, those more trivial tasks tend to fall by the wayside.

Leading Ladies in Genna’s Life: “I’m inspired by women writers like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath – though I hope to meet a better end than they did. Then there’s also my masters supervisor, Sara Matchett – she’s a strong feminist and brilliant at motivating young people.”

NTSIKI BIYELA – WINEMAKING

What’s exceptional about local dame Ntsiki Biyela is not just her status as South Africa’s first black female winemaker, but the fact that she had the courage to boldly venture into the unknown. Having grown up in a small village in KwaZulu-Natal, the now-respected boutique cellar master had never even encountered vino when she relocated to the Western Cape to take up a scholarship position in the oenology class at Stellenbosch University. And yet, today, at Stellekaya winery in the Cape Winelands, she confidently creates a stellar range of reds that are drunk and appreciated all over the world.

What’s more, she’s hasn’t just ridden on the fact that she was the first in the field; rather, she’s worked hard to excel and exceed expectations too. Not only did her first vintage – the 2004 Cape Cross blend – win a gold medal at the Michelangelo International Wine Awards, but many of her other “kids” (as she calls them) have garnered local and global acclaim too, and Ntsiki herself was named South African Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009 at the Landbouweekblad awards.

Conquering the once-foreign realm of wine hasn’t been without its challenges though. Ntsiki has had to hold on tight to her own self-belief when those meeting a black woman winemaker for the first time greet her with scepticism, and she’s had to brave the fact that it can be very intimidating making waves in what is still predominantly a white male world.

But with a decade of vinification behind her, she’s proven her ability, and in so doing, she’s helped to carve the path for many other lovely ladies to follow in her footsteps. And that’s precisely what she hopes for: that at wine functions in the future, she sees many more enthusiastic female faces.

Leading Ladies in Ntsiki’s Life: “Whenever I go through tough times, I think back to my late grandmother and ask myself how she would have handled the situation. She was a big part of my childhood and is still my greatest inspiration.”

BERNADINE THOMAS – ALTRUISM AND ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM

This eternally optimistic superwoman, who resides in the informal settlement of Village Heights in Lavender Hill, is a beacon of selflessness and strength in a community that is ravaged by poverty and poor social conditions.

As someone who’s passionate about children and education, the mother of six runs a small library and crèche called Gift of Hope out of her own home with the help of her husband, who she refers to as her right-hand man. The centre is a welcome option for parents who work all day and a safe haven for kiddies, who receive the love, care and attention here that they often lack at home. Plus, it also aims to give the 25 to 40 little ones that attend the establishment a head start in life by teaching them everything from the alphabet to shapes and colours.

The crèche, though, is only one way that this remarkable woman is making a difference. Because the Village Heights settlement sidles up to the Rondevlei Nature Reserve, the eco area is susceptible to damage from the crime and pollution that’s so pervasive in the township. Thus, Bernadine, who’s as enthusiastic about the environment as she is about young’uns, has helped to establish a relationship between the City of Cape Town and the settlement residents that serves to both protect the reserve and uplift the community. Through Bernadine, the City has been able to enter the neighbourhood and build a children’s playground, cultivate a vegetable garden, plant trees, remove alien invasive vegetation, lay down a soccer field and more.

Ultimately, what drives this fearless female, who earns next to nothing for her efforts, is a deep desire to make her district better in every way possible and a knowledge that little is achieved by simply sitting back and complaining. She’s profoundly proactive, hugely inspirational and undoubtedly the champion of a small slice of Cape Town that can certainly use the help.

Leading Ladies in Bernadine’s Life: My grandmother, who passed away in 2002, is the greatest woman I’ve met – she showed me that life’s not just about you; it’s about others too. My love for nature came from her too. She’d never take us to the cinema; she took us to open spaces instead.”

MARGOT JANSE – CULINARY ARTS

Above all else, it’s this celebrated chef’s refusal to play it safe or be inhibited in any way that accounts for her great success in life. In the exceptional food that she crafts for award-winning Franschhoek hotel Le Quartier Français, she adheres to no boundaries, and she’s done the same in her career path, along the way proving that it’s possible to be both a committed mother and an accomplished player in her field.

Though the Dutch-born dame’s initial areas of expertise were drama and photography, when the magic of the kitchen began to draw her in at the age of 23, she bravely heeded the call and pursued a profession in the culinary arts despite having no formal training. Margot was fortunate enough to learn under famed restaurateur Ciro Molinaro, and it was only a few short years before she joined The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français and, very soon after, took on the role of executive chef and the pressure of heading up a restaurant that was already considered one of the country’s best.

Under her remarkable leadership, the fine dining eatery has soared forward, scooping up multiple Eat Out Top 10 awards and being ranked as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for eight years. Margot herself was also named the first Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef in Africa in 2007 and given the Eat Out Chef of the Year award in 2012. Still, what this extraordinary lady considers her greatest achievement is the fact that she’s been able to keep her eyes on what really matters in life and use her power and popularity to do good – she currently heads up feeding schemes that fill the bellies of over 150 underprivileged school kids daily.

And she does all this while navigating the challenge of being both a distinguished chef and a loving mom. Needless to say, this is a lady who’s seemingly unstoppable, a true model for the modern woman.

Leading Ladies in Margot’s Life: “I don’t have just one female mentor; I surround myself with people who inspire me, so I’ve taken lots of things from lots of women.”

JERUSHAH RANGASAMI – MANAGEMENT CONSULTING & SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT

By the age of 25, when most men and women are just starting to find their feet in the working world, Durban-born Jerushah Rangasami had already established a successful company set to make a real difference to South African society.

While completing a postgraduate degree in psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), this driven entrepreneur began working on various social projects and noted the need to assess whether such initiatives were actually having the impact they hoped to be having. Thus, Jerushah founded the Mother City-based business Impact Consulting to do exactly this: work with non-profits and other organisations involved in the realm of social development to evaluate their goals and projects and ensure that they’re achieving the biggest positive effect they can.

Since, Jerushah’s company has helped to inform important policy changes and has conducted evaluation studies that improve outcomes in the fields of education, health, housing, early childhood development, HIV/AIDS and more. Plus, this courageous dame has presented at many international conferences, received prestigious accolades like the Businesswomen’s Association Business Achiever Start-up Award and even developed her own information management software.

She has, at times, struggled to be taken seriously as a young career woman and has occasionally found it lonely at the top, but she has pushed forward to help reshape our local landscape for the better, while, in the last few years, also straddling the divide between work and home life (she is the mother of two little boys). And what’s she learned along the way? The importance of delegating and the benefits of being surrounded by other brilliant women you can trust.

Leading Ladies in Jerushah’s Life: “I’ve learned essential lessons about parenthood and networking from my mother-in-law and late mom - they're two of my biggest inspirations.”

Photo Credits: Image of Genna Gardini courtesy of Paris Brummer; image of Margot Janse courtesy of Anthony Friend; photo of Jerushah Rangasami by Jonx Pillemer.

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Read more about the national public holiday that pays homage to local fearless females:Women’s Day in South Africa.

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