19 years ago today the world was devastated by news that one of our biggest icons had died. Also known as ‘the people’s princess’, Diana Frances Spencer, former Princes of Wales, died in a fatal car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris. Not only had the world lost a beloved social icon, but it had lost a prominent philanthropist whose aim was to uplift others and heal the world.
But Diana, of course, was and is not the only female warrior changing the world – many others had come before, and there are even more women making inroads into social injustices and creating awareness around illness, poverty, bigotry and disability.
So on this last day of Women’s Month, we take a look at some South African female trailblazers who have set standard for altruists worldwide.
South Africa’s female philanthropists and agents of social change
Ellen Phyllis Hellman
Born in Johannesburg in 1908, and went on to study social anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and became the first woman to obtain a DPhil degree at the university. Her dissertation, titled ‘Early school leaving among African school children and the occupational opportunities open to the African juveniles’ was later published under the title ‘Problems of Urban Bantu Youth’. She was particularly concerned with the appalling conditions under which black urban Africans lived and strove to alleviate those conditions. Serving as a leading executive member of the South African Institute of Race Relations, she submitted evidence to various government commissions, including the Commission for Socio-Economic Development of the Native Areas of South Africa (Tomlinson Commission) and the Commission of Inquiry into the Riots at Soweto and Elsewhere’ (Cillie Commission). She also chaired the Isaacson Bursary Fund for Africans, lecturer at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, honorary treasurer of the African Welfare Centre and founding member of the liberal Progressive Party.
Moloi-Motsepe is mostly known for her business endeavours as a doctor and Fashion Icon, but she’s also a prominent philanthropist. Her work in the fashion industry as chairperson of African Fashion International prompted her to developing and supporting small businesses and addressing issues of global poverty and social injustice. She does important work with the World Economic Forum and the Motsepe Foundation which supports a variety of initiatives aimed at enhancing education and laying the foundation for future generations in South Africa. She’s an active advocate for women’s health education – incorporating her philanthropic pursuits into the fashion industry with projects like the Design for Life Breast Cancer Campaign.
Annie Coetzee is a South African businesswoman, corporate trainer and motivational speaker who strives to bring about change through human empowerment. Through her work, she aims to lead individuals towards a space of personal and professional empowerment and break destructive patterns. She developed the first Over 40 Wellness and Longevity programme and has authored several books about emotional intelligence, self-empowerment and psychology. Annie has particular interest in women’s empowerment and creative problem-solving and has used her infectious positive attitude to inspire not only South Africans, but individuals and businesses around the world.
Rabana is a computer scientist, entrepreneur and founder of South Africa’s first free VoIP mobile services provider, Yeigo Communications. But more than anything, she makes our list for founding Rekindle Learning – educational technology aimed at providing all people with the ability to learn. The company aims to overcome inefficiencies, socio-economic barriers and weak infrastructures and empower others with the use of technology to learn. Rabana also chairs the board of the NPO, Generation Ubuntu, which provides life-saving care for children living with HIV. Additionally, Rabana is an ambassador and juror for the United Nations World Summit Awards.
Not many people have heard the name Muriel Jones, and yet she’s a woman who made a great impact in South Africa. Born in Wales in 1809, Jones moved to Cape Town where she became a ballet dancer and member of the National Council of Women. She was later appointed Life Vice President of this council. She became deeply concerned with the living conditions in the Cape Town slums and endeavoured to address, among other things, issues such as juvenile delinquency, over-indulgence and drug abuse in these areas. She also actively campaigned to the improvement of housing standards in the slums.
Pria Hassan is not only an Advocate, but an altruist who believes in empowering others through her entrepreneurial pursuits. As Executive Director of WOA Fuels and Oils and Managing Director of Women of African Investments, Hassan has dedicated herself to seeing social upliftment of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and investing in entrepreneurial education. In her own business she supports her employees through wellness programmes, flexibility and self-growth opportunities. In her capacity as philanthropist, she supports several community upliftment programmes which focus on abuse, health, HIV/Aids and female empowerment.
Adri Marais not only holds a Master’s degree in Biochemistry as well as an MBA, she is also the co-founder of the Tertiary School in Business Administration (TSiBA). TSiBA is a non-profit organisation which provides full tuition scholarships for students wishing to attain a BBA degree in Entrepreneurial Leadership. Her foundation has awarded more than 1 000 scholarships – producing five Mandela Rhodes Scholars and seeing 90% of the scholars currently employed or pursuing graduate studies. She is particularly interested in overcoming issues of gender discrimination and empowering communities to achieve social change through education.
Ramona Kasavan is the founder of the Happy Days Foundation – a company which empowers girls to attend school through donating sanitary products to schoolchildren. After working in the media for companies like East Coast Radio, Eastern Mosaic TV and SABC, Kasavan became inspired to produce her own line of sanitary products to distribute to disadvantaged schools. The project came about following the revelation that, on average, girls miss approximately 384 of school during their education due to a lack of sanitary wear. In addition to Happy Days, she also founded Pads and Cents project which teaches women between 18 and 35 how to invest in their futures and become independent.
Most people are well acquainted with Clifford’s range of bespoke jewellery – she is one of the finest craftswomen of our time and a prominent businesswoman. But Jenna is also incredibly passionate about women’s rights and equality. She actively advocates for gender equality and women’s empowerment – promoting and empowering women in business. She has established numerous philanthropic projects and mentoring programmes including the Dream Big Initiative and Breaking the Mould, and supports both Fur Free South Africa and Stop Rhino Poaching.
After witnessing a significant gap in the training opportunities for South Africans wishing to enter the culinary industry – Futhi Ngomane decided to do something about it. Having learned the love of baking and cooking from her great-grandfather who was a pastry chef, Ngomane developed her own culinary skills and decided to share this love with others. She started the Zen Africa Chef Academy of Food and Wine which provides short skills courses and training programmes specifically aimed at the youth and people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Applebaum’s name is synonymous with business – as the owner of De Morgenzon and having served at director level of several companies, she’s made her mark on the business sector worldwide. But Applebaum is not simply concerned with making money – she’s also concerned with sharing her wealth and empowering others. In addition to having donated over R274 million to philanthropic activities, she’s the co-founder of the Women’s Investment Portfolio Limited (Wiphold), created the Gordon Institute of Business Science, funded the Donald Gordon Medical Centre, worked as counsellor at Childline and the 702 Crisis Centre and exposed credit provider abuse of low-earning workers.
Helen Beatrice May Fennell (Joseph)
Although born in England, Helen Fennell (known by her married name Joseph), travelled the world -teaching school in India and later relocating to Durban. Her social activism stemmed from her welfare work in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War which prompted her to becoming a social worker. She worked with the Garment Workers Union, co-founded the Congress of Democrats (COD) and served as national secretary of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). She was later charged with high treason and was the first person to be placed under house arrest. She was awarded the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal.
After a traumatic gang rape, Jes Foord stood up and decided she wasn’t going to let the experience shatter her. Instead, she spoke out, transformed her experience and started the Jes Foord Foundation which aims to restore lives after rape through several initiatives and activities. She’s a prominent social activist and motivational speaker who also works educates children at schools and has several care centres in the pipeline which would provide medical, psychological and legal aid to victims of sexual violence.
Dorothea Sarah Florence Alexandra Ortlepp (Lady Phillips)
Lady Phillips, called simply ‘Florence’ by her friends, was a prominent South African art patroness who promoted indigenous culture. Following a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s South African Republic by her husband and others, known as the Jameson Raid, they relocated to London following his exile, but she later returned to Johannesburg. Here she had dreams of founding an art gallery, and after numerous tribulations, she founded the Johannesburg Art Gallery. One of her greatest aims was cultivating and preserving local art heritage. Among others she headed a movement to preserve and restore the Koopmans-De Wet House in Cape Town and collected African furniture for herself and public institutions. She later devoted her time to preserving national heritage and artefacts and sponsored various public causes.
Judge Leona Valerie Theron
Judge Leona Valerie Theron is one of our most renowned lawmakers and currently holds a seat as judge on the Supreme Court of Appeal; but first and foremost, Theron is an advocate for the upliftment of women and children. Among other things she has upheld the equal rights of women married under customary law. She sits on the boards of the Durban Playhouse, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at UKZN and the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders, a Commonwealth Foundation Fellow, trustee of the African Monitor and adviser to the Anglican Bishop of Natal.
Although starting her career as an actress, Mpho MacChambers volunteered her time at a school for deaf and blind children. This time spent with people with disabilities prompted MacChambers to establishing the VIRYA Group of Companies which strives to enhance the quality of life of persons living with disabilities in South Africa. One of her projects, SheCan! Provides accredited skills training to women and children with disabilities. She also assists employers to support employees with disabilities and integrating them into the workplace.
There you have it – just a few women we’re proud to be associated to as South Africans. We hope all the ladies out there had a blessed and prosperous Women’s Month and that you’ll continue to seek opportunities to uplift yourselves and those around you.