Cape Town’s fearless females

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Cape Town’s fearless females

A look at six trailblazing Mother City ladies

These are our six stellar featured women from 2015. Clickthrough for 2014'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, sport and recreation, youth literacy, urban agriculture, criminal law and volunteer wildfire services – who are flying the flag for the bright, the brainy and the brilliant and serving as a source of inspiration for the masses.

SHELLEY BARRY: Filmmaker, Poet & Lecturer | Two Spinning Wheels Production Founder & Director
"If we don't tell our stories, who will?" - Mira Nair

From the moment Shelley Barry saw her first movie, Annie, as a young girl, she knew she wanted to work in the magical world of film – a dream that would stay with her for the rest of her life. However, at the age of 24 Shelley’s life changed dramatically and her dream of becoming a filmmaker wavered to almost the impossible.

In 1996, Shelley was caught in the cross fire of rival taxi groups A bullet that was meant for the taxi driver punctured both of her lungs and severed her spine leaving her paralysed and reliant on a speaking valve. The traumatic experience, however, did not destroy her passions, and with the love and support of her family and friends, this exceptional woman continued to pursue her filmmaking dream: “We may not always be able to choose our circumstances, but we can choose how to respond to it,” asserts Shelley.

As a disabled filmmaker, Shelley has had to overcome many challenges; nonetheless she has leapt forward in the filmmaking world and has created several internationally award-winning documentaries, notably for her first film, Whole – A Trinity of Being, which won several awards internationally.

After graduating from UCT and UWC, Shelley was awarded a scholarship to complete a Master’s degree in the USA, where she won the “Best Narrative Short” at the Philadelphia Festival of Independents in her first year of film school. Shelley is also the founder and director of twospinningwheels productions, which specialises in documentary and short fiction and is currently a filmmaker in residence at the Women's and Gender studies department at UWC with the long term vision of teaching documentary production interdepartmentally. She has also served in both the Mandela and Mbeki administrations as an advisor on disability policy.

Leading Ladies in Shelley’s Life: “My mother always encouraged and nurtured my creativity. She always told me I was great (even when I wrote a bad poem), so that grounded me so much. I was also inspired by English teacher Grace Grimsel, who taught me how to meditate and loved my writing. I am also deeply inspired by fellow artists and writers here in South Africa. To name a few: Malika Ndlovu, Barbara Boswell, Berni Searle, Zanele Muholi, Gabrielle le Roux, Sara Matchett, Anthea Carolus, Tina Schouw, Khadija Tracey Heeger, Catherine Pretorious aka Dope Saint Jude, I could go on and on. Mira Nair believed in me. Brenda Goldblatt gave me my first camera. Frida Kahlo is my sister from another lifetime.”

VANNESA LYNCH: DNA Project Founder & Creative Director


Following the murder of her father in 2004 and the blatant disregard and destruction of evidence containing DNA by the police, community members and other first-on-crime scene responders, Vanessa Lynch began to seek ways in which to meaningfully contribute towards the alleviation of crime in South Africa.

Driven by her own traumatic experience, this extraordinary woman embarked on a journey (for over a decade) where she founded an organisation that aimed to practically address the crime situation in South Africa through the expanded use of DNA evidence in conjunction with South Africa’s National DNA Database. Introduce the DNA Project.

Where some may not have been able to find the strength, this incredible woman did and because of her determination and resilience (and her ability to forge relationships with police and government), we now have a pioneering new DNA Act on our statute books: The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act 37 of 2013 (DNA Act), which came into law on January 27, 2014 and into effect early this year on January 31, 2015. It is now mandatory for all arrested and convicted scheduled eight offenders to be swabbed for DNA and the results stored in the DNA database.

Currently, Vanessa also sits on the National Forensic and Oversight Ethics Board as the Deputy Chair. What’s more, just as the DNA Project has developed the Forensic Honours Degree at the UFS, which is also offered at UCT, UWC, MGI and soon UKZN, they have also begun to develop a subject outline for a “DNA and the Law” course for law students in an attempt to bridge the gap between science and law. Furthermore, the Innocence Project of South Africa (IPSA) has also recently been restructured and will be driven by the DNAP, the Wits Justice Project and UWC as a tripartite partnership, should the organisations bid for funding be successful. 

Leading Ladies in Vanessa’s Life: “My Grandmother taught me things about life and the universe that would have shocked most at the time but have had a profound effect on my life - she warned me about global warming in the 70's! An eccentric, non-conventional and unforgettable woman (not always for the right reasons!) who was way beyond her time. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and who went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She started the Green Belt Movement - its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women - to date 30 million trees in Africa have been planted and  nearly 900,000 women in Africa have been helped. It took her one tree to plant a forest, a philosophy that I have always lived by and her achievement shows how that is in fact possible."

TARYN LOCK: Co-Founder & Programme Director READ to RISE
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela

Taryn Lock believes that reading is the foundational skill required for youngsters to excel at school and become constructive members of society. This incredible lady, touched by the plight of individuals struggling to read, quit her corporate job and, along with her husband, founded READ to RISE – a NGO committed to promoting youth literacy in schools in South Africa’s under-resourced communities.

READ to RISE has two programmes: a Book Ownership programme and a Classroom Mini-Library programme. Both initiatives aim to inspire children to learn to read (and love it) as well as read the required number of books per a year. While the NGO has previously focused on learners in Mitchells Plain, this year they have branched out to primary schools in Soweto, Johannesburg. To date READ to RISE has visited over 280 classes at over 40 schools and have given a new OAKY AND THE SUN (Taryn and her husband’s very own published and illustrated children’s book) to over 11 000 learners as well as have placed Mini-libraries in 110 classes. Not to mention, the Department of Basic Education has endorsed all of their programmes. 

Not to mention, Taryn has been recognised by the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans in 2014 as well as has been interviewed on several radio stations, Hectic Nine 9 and Expresso SABC3. Earlier this year, she was also invited to Tuynhuys and met the Deputy President at the Pre-SONA youth engagement in Khayelitsha. Currently, Taryn is illustrating three new children’s books in the Oaky series (which her husband has written), where these new books will be added to their school programmes and also to the Mini-Library collection.

Leading Ladies in Taryn’s Life: “My mother, Rose, is my role-model. She has always supported me and encouraged me to do the best that I can be. I admire her strength, unconditional love, her hard work and dedication. I am a stronger woman today because of her. Furthermore, I really admire and respect Malala Yousafzai who is an inspirational young lady who has fought so hard for female education in Pakistan. Malala has faced so many challenges and despite the many assassination attempts by the Taliban this teenager still stands strong and fights for human rights. She inspires me to be brave, to stand up for my beliefs and to fight for dignity for all.”

MARISA GALLOWAY: Wildfire Services Volunteer

This born and bred Capetonian and mother of two may be owner and senior designer of her new start-up graphic design business by trade, but this extremely brave individual is so much more than what her professional title suggests.

Owing to her keen interest in reptiles and snakes, Marisa attended a course with the Cape Reptile Institute in 2014. It was there she met a woman volunteer for the Volunteer Wildfire Services (WVS). Unaware of the possibility for women (and volunteers) to be firefighters, Marisa was excited by the opportunity and after her first weekend of training, she was hooked.

Currently based at the Newlands Station and in addition to volunteering for the Cape Reptile Club, Marisa also volunteers at the VWS as a Skid Unit Firefighter, Land Rover Crew Driver and Critical Support Member and First Aid (Level 3) at base and on scene. What’s more, she also sits on the VWS board of directors as the Marketing Director as well as has started assisting as a trainer to coach new recruits for the new training season. Marisa was also awarded a certificate for the most overall volunteer hours completed by a new recruit since the fire season started in September 2014 – a worthy award for the fire-heroine.

Although stereotypically firefighting is seen as a male-dominated field, Marisa has experienced no gender differentiation and jokingly maintains that the biggest challenge she has had to overcome as a female firefighter is fitness (and her age): “I’ve heard recently that it’s not grey hair, it’s wisdom highlights and some of the women that belt up those hills are much older than me so I can’t even use that excuse anymore!”

Leading Ladies in Marisa’s Life: “My mother who taught me the love of music, the ocean and the great outdoors. My step-mother who has taught me to be gracious and is the most humble person I know. My three sisters who show me what it means to be strong and graceful. My best friend, Tanja, who is my rock and my daughter, Nikita, who has been my inspiration since the day she was born.”

CHRISTINA KABA: Operation Manager Abalimi Bezekhaya

Originally from Kokstad, KwaZulu Natal, this inspiring Cape Town-based woman is doing wonders in her community, Khayelitsha by uplifting others to take charge of their lives and households through urban agriculture. Now the Operations Manager at Abalimi Bezekhaya, an urban agriculture (UA) and environmental action (EA) association operating in the socio-economically neglected townships of Khayelitsha, Nyanga and surrounding areas on the Cape Flats, Mama Christina Kaba aims to inspire and empower other women in her community.

Shortly after settling in Langa, Cape Town, where she originally worked as a domestic worker in Sea Point, Mama Kaba, as she is affectionately known, and her husband moved to Khayalitsha owing to his new job. Soon the travel cost between Khayelitsha and Sea Point became too much and Mama Kaba lost her job. Times became tough for the husband and wife and in an attempt to help with their financial struggles, Mama Kaba began growing vegetables in her back garden. Little did she know, however, she was growing something a lot bigger than just organic goods.

Despite only having a Grade 4 education and not being able to read or write, Mama Kaba was encouraged owing to her green fingers to apply for the Abalimi project opening up in Khayelitsha at the time. Owing to her incredible skill and knowledge in farming, Mama Kaba was awarded the position and in 1996, the first Abalimi community garden in Khayelitsha was grown.

In addition to Abalimi, Mama Kaba has been the forerunner of many projects in Khayelitsha (including the community swimming pool and the Manyanani Peace Park). Through these projects she aims to empower the women (and men) of Khayelitsha and make them proud of where they live. She wishes to show women that they too can make a difference in their households, it not just the husband’s duty to provide. Thanks to Abalimi, many women have become providers and have been able to help buy houses, pay for school fees and better their and their families’ lives.   

Leading Ladies in Christina’s Life: “The women at Abalimi.”

LEANDRA SMEDA: Banyana Banyana Left Winger
“Soccer is life, life without soccer is just boring” – Leandra Smeda

Born in Velddrif, a small fishing town down the West Coast, this sporting superstar found herself in Cape Town in 2008 when she began her tertiary education at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) studying Food Technology. As a young child, Leandra Smeda had always loved sport and participated in various activities (even playing cricket in the boys’ team!).

Although netball was the first game Leandra learnt to play, this leading sportswoman crossed the gender boundaries of sport from a young age and often played soccer with her older brother and friends in the street: “One day, they [her brother and friends] needed a ball, so I told them they can only use my ball if they will allow me to play with them.” From that game on, Leandra’s love for soccer was inginited.

Now, Leandra plays left-winger for Banyana Banyana, South Africa’s National Women’s Football team that participated in the 2012 London Olympics. Currently, she also plays club football at UWC Ladies FC in the Sasol Women’s League. Leandra has won numerous awards throughout her soccer career, including the UWC Sports Women of the Year in 2014 as well as CPUT Sports Women of the Year for 2013, 2011 and 2010. What’s more, she played in the USSA team for the World Student games in Russia in 2013 and was awarded the Top Goal Scorer in 2013 for club football. In 2013, along with her UWC ladies FC team, they were the Coke Cup SAFA WC winners and she was awarded Player of the Tournament. These are just a few of her many achievements.

Being a South African woman playing soccer, a sporting game stereotypically seen for men, means an incredible amount to Leandra: “It feels good to be able to compete with the best in SA women’s football and show that we can play the game just as well as the men”.

Leading Ladies in Leandra’s Life: “My mother”

By Krysia Gaweda


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


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