A conversation with Sikelelwa Alex Msitshana, Founder and Managing Director of the Deaf Empowerment Firm (DEF) and author of “A woman of indomitable character“

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LM:

My dear sister, friend and comrade, what a great honor to have this conversation with you. I know that you will inspire and challenge my readers.

AM:

Thank you, Lincoln, for the opportunity to have this conversation with you. I appreciate it immensely.

LM:

Tell us about your early years and how such events in Soweto had an impact on your life.

AM:

Growing up in SOWETO in the early seventies through to the eighties was a mixed bag of experiences. Too much was happening in our country at the time and as a young girl growing up in turbulent South Africa one got exposed to a number of situations. There was the joyful, youthful experience of playing gleefully with one’s peers and being involved in youth activities, then there was the disruption of our education with the June 16 uprisings right through to the eighties which shook our youthful existence and made us alive to the conditions of the majority of Black people in our country. Living in such close proximity to the events of June 16 surely had an impact on how one became socialized in terms of responsibility towards the emancipation of our country and the desire to attain freedom. It was a period of learning and discovery of my aspirations as a young girl for the kind of future I wanted to see for my country. We had to grow up quickly as the youth during that time and become alive to the reality in our country but somehow, we still managed to also be young people, to engage in youthful activities that would also play a role in shaping us and molding our values. I was involved in our local youth club and took part in activities such as ballroom dancing and gumboot dancing. At school I took part in the school choir and other cultural activities and was a member of the debating team. So, somehow amidst all of the turmoil, we still managed to find time to engage in youthful activities hence my saying it was a mixed bag of experiences.

LM:

Who were your role models and who were those who influenced you at an early stage of your life?

AM:

I come from a family of very strong and independent women so early on in my life I learned that to achieve anything in this world, one has to work very hard. My grandmother was a matron at Baragwanath hospital and was the matriarch of our family, instilling strong values in us as young girls (my aunt, my sister and I). My family is predominantly female, so I have been surrounded by womanpower throughout my life. My mom is my ultimate heroine and my soulmate. She brought us up, my sister and I, singlehandedly after her divorce when we were very young. We did not have much at home, but we never went to bed hungry. My mother ensured that she provided for us. We had a lot of love and togetherness as a family. She was very strict and very protective but also very encouraging in our dreams and aspirations. She instilled in us girls, a sense of “you can do anything you set your mind too, you are special, and your current conditions should not determine who you can become,” she also instilled the value of the importance of staying humble, respecting your elders and being your neighbor’s keeper. Those were the lessons I would take with me throughout my life. Lessons that would propel me to become the best I can be and to treat everyone I encounter with the utmost respect.

LM:

You went to the former UDW university in KZN, describe those times?

AM:

Landing at UDW in the late eighties opened up a whole new world for me. There I was, this tiny girl from SOWETO, out of Johannesburg for the first time in this big tertiary institution. It was a battle at first as I did not have accommodation on campus and had to stay with a family friend for the first few months so I had to commute daily from Umlazi to Westville but I also think that presented an opportunity for me to grow up fast, out of mommy’s clutches and realise that I now had to stand on my own two feet and figure out life for myself. That was the experience of most of my peers in that situation.

Campus life was very different from school life also, I soon discovered, no more spoon feeding as our teachers did at school, managing your time and ensuring that you strike a good balance between academic and social activities. But that was not to be the end of it, coming from the background that I did with exposure to the political life as it was in our communities, gravitating into political activities on campus was a natural course of action. I got recruited by my good friend of thirty years now, Stanley Molema, into the student body and joined what was then the Progressive Youth Congress (PROYCO) formed during the banning of SANSCO which later became SASCO after the merger with NUSAS and the unbanning of all political organisations of our people and that was the beginning of my political life as an activist.

LM:

When I met you at UDW, you were the epitome of a social magnet and a passionate student activist involved in all aspects of university life? Tell us a bit about that time.

AM:

A social magnet Lincoln, I’m not sure about that part (LAUGHING) but yes, I was a very passionate student activist and involved in all aspects of student life. I was part of the various structures of the SRC, the sports union, our campus radio Audwax. I was coordinator of the UDW Dance Club and many other formations of the student body. Politically I was involved in all SANSCO structures on the main campus and at the student residence after I finally moved into res. I also became a member of the local SACP branch under the leadership of Cde. Dennis Nkosi, now Dhlomo, immediately after the unbannings.

This was a turbulent time for activists, we were faced with a lot of harsh conditions under which we mobilized and pushed the struggle forward. I was privileged to serve with comrades who were guided by the highest principles, moral and ethical standards. I got umrhabulo (political education) from a number of our older comrades who took us under their wing and impressed upon us the importance of the struggle we were engaged in which led to us growing politically. This was the time when every revolutionary had to put shoulder to the wheel to ensure the success of the campaign to make South Africa ungovernable as we made the final push to eradicate apartheid, so I threw my lot in with all revolutionaries in our country.

Our involvement in student and political activities required a lot of sacrifice to such an extent that some among us took longer to complete our studies. This activism, was not only directed at the fight against apartheid but also very deep involvement with communities around the university.  Completing our studies was however non-negotiable and had to be achieved. I remember years later watching the John Kani play at the market theatre (Nothing but the Truth) and how everyone in the theatre identified so much with the character of Cde. Themba in the play, when John Kani’s character as Cde. Themba’s brothers, related how Cde. Themba was doing a 3-year degree but “Cde. Themba took 5 wonderful years to complete his studies” (LAUGHS HEARTILY). Yes, that was so true for some if not most of us. Such was the combination of our student and activist lives.  

LM:

When you left university, what were your dreams, what were your goals you wanted to achieve?

AM:

Like all of us, after we complete our studies, I wanted to establish my career and build it into something gigantic. This was the time now to find my niche in the world and begin to provide for my family and serve my country and I set out to do just that.

I did not battle much in establishing my career save for a period of about one and half years in which I did part time jobs while looking for a permanent post. Soon after that I was scooped up by a company in the industrial footwear manufacturing industry and six months into my role, I received a promotion to HR Manager and from then on, my career just flourished.

I did not experience any challenges developing my career and the functions and roles I played in various organisations helped me to develop immensely as an individual, a team member, a leader of my teams and an employee generally.

What became a trend in the development of my career was that I found myself tasked with roles that gave me an opportunity to establish organisations or departments from scratch and build them up to thriving entities. I was thrust in situations where organisational development, transformation and change management were key to my roles.

I was entrusted with the responsibility of establishing systems and policies from scratch and either staffing the institutions from scratch or managing the transformation process within. This tested my leadership abilities to the core, but I found that my personality served me very well in ensuring a smooth management of those roles.

So, I had a very lucrative, exciting and thriving career in the time when I was employment and I cherish all the leaders who guided me and taught me so many valuable lessons about leadership, valuing your team, taking care of the human element in one’s team at the same time as the core business activities. That for me is the foremost leadership quality that I believe any leader should have. If you can strike that delicate balance between core business objectives and the human element, then you have a recipe for success.

LM:

Your life took a dramatic turn when you were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, describe how this news hit you?

AM:

With a great deal of defiance simply because of the way in which I found out about my disease. The medical practitioner who examined me and determined that I was HIV positive offered neither pre-nor post-testing counselling and delivered the results in such a judgmental way. He treated me with the utmost disdain, like I had done something wrong and deserved what was happening to me, so I immediately went into defiance mode. He is a medical practitioner and there are codes of ethics on how to treat news like these with your patient. So that was the gear I shifted into when I heard the news.

It was much later when I was by myself that I started to process the whole situation but by that time, my rational mind had kicked in and the best way forward for me was to accept my situation and find a way to deal with it. So, I began the research process to learn more about the disease and how I should protect myself and those around me and how to take best care of myself.

LM:

These were some difficult times, the stigma associated with HIV/Aids was so bad, describe for us what you went through both physically, emotionally and spiritually during this time.

AM:

That is so true Lincoln, the stigma of HIV/Aids was a terrible reality for people afflicted with the disease to live with. Society was not accepting, and most people found themselves shunned and without the critical support they needed to deal with their illness. I was one of the fortunate ones to have had incredible support on this journey.

After the diagnosis, my main concern was to protect my mom from these news, not because she would shun me but because I knew just how worried she would be about me. I knew it would break her heart to find out and she would go into panic mode thinking the worst and that she was going to lose me. That was my main concern so I did my best to keep it from her but because of the nature of our relationship where she is free to go through my things if she needs something and I am not there, she ended up finding the results and becoming aware which turned out to be a good thing after all because she provided the support I so needed.

Emotionally I truly held it together, I did not allow myself to fall apart. It was not an option because foremost in my mind I had to take care of my family regardless of what I was going through, so I soldiered on. The real defining moment for me emotionally, was when for the first time in about a year since I was diagnosed, I lost someone who was very precious to me. Someone I thought I was going to build a life with but unfortunately when I told him about my condition, he decided he was not strong enough to deal with it and our relationship ended. For the first time since my diagnosis, that was the time I really bawled and cried my heart out and realised the impact of this disease on my life, that it could cost me someone so dear to me. Up until then I thought I could just carry on as normal but that experience made me to pause and say “hey, you really must learn to deal with this thing, you must allow yourself time to process what the impact of this disease means in your life” and I think that in itself was a positive thing to have happened because for first time, I took time to pause and process what was going on in my life, reflect and chart a realistic way forward.

I’ve never really allowed the stigma of the disease to affect me. Since my mother now knew, I became open and honest with people about it, particularly partners who would come into my life later on. I felt that it was important for anyone wishing to pursue a relationship with me to know about it up front and so I declared and gave them the choice, even with the griping fear of possible rejection at the back of my mind but I still gave them the choice and surprisingly enough, I met wonderful men who did not judge nor stigmatise me. They appreciated my honesty and continued to love me regardless. They took me for the person that I am and so life carried on.

LM:

When you thought things could not be worse, the debilitating effects of this incurable disease began ravaging your body. From the passionate, energetic and full of life Alex, you were now in constant pain. Describe these painful moments in your life.

AM:

Oh Lincoln, this disease really played havoc with my life. I became so ill that I could virtually not do anything for myself without assistance. I was in and out of hospital for a period of about two years almost non-stop. As soon as I would be discharged I would have to go back in again. I went through it all, the vomiting, the diarrhea, losing weight and being reduced to almost just flesh and bones, the swelling feet that made it impossible to stand, let alone walk, all of it. I laughed looking at myself during some of the better days that I had no idea that our African trade mark (the African woman’s bum) could be reduced to such withered levels. It shrank literally, it was gone, can you imagine!

The pain of watching my mother witness my waning state was what hit me the most. She was strong and was my pillar of strength through it all, but I know it couldn’t have been easy for her. No mother can bear watching their child wither away in front of their eyes. Witnessing me in that state could not have been easy for her yet she was there, taking care of me, cleaning after me and nursing me back to health.

I went through a whole bag of emotions. I felt guilty that I was putting my family through this hell, my sister was still young, still trying to establish her career and here I was, supposed to be her role model, failing her in this way. She had to chip in and support the family because I could not. She did it with love, but I felt I was letting my family down.

LM:

Your greatest disappointment and pain was that you could not take care of your beloved Mum and realize the dreams you had. Did you feel, at this time that you could not take it anymore?

AM:

I felt really bad about that, I am the eldest and supposed to help my mom keep the family together. That was the biggest regret I had with my disease, that it had broken me to such levels that I could not provide for my family. My mother had just gone on pension; my sister was just establishing her career, so the family relied heavily on me. The guilt of it all was a heavy burden on me and that was perhaps the saddest thing about my illness more than the disease itself.

LM:

Did you think about giving up, or taking your life as you saw your dreams disappear?

AM:

Not at all, giving up is not in my DNA. I am one to always look for solutions when faced with a challenge. Being the eldest and the breadwinner since my mom was now retired as I’ve said, the first and foremost concern is to provide for the family. There is no room for self-pity when you have a family to provide for, so that became my preoccupation. For me actually that was what made my illness a burden more than the illness itself. The fact that because of it, I could not provide for my family. I blamed myself for having allowed it to happen, I got angry at myself for allowing a situation where my family’s welfare was at risk, so it was anger and a determination to get my family out of the rut that propelled me forward. Giving up was never an option.

My survivor instincts kicked in and I knew I had to fight to get out of that hospital at all costs. I remember my mom giving me a report back when I started to get better and could comprehend what was going on around me. She said that one day the doctor came to them and told them that he had done all that was medically possible and that it was now in God’s hands, asked if we were a praying family and that, that was the time to pray. Then a few days later, he came back and said to her “your child is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it, she is such a fighter, most of my patients in her state do not come back, we prepare for the worst, but she is fighting, and she is going to come back to you.”

I guess that was just me fighting to come back to my family to carry on my role and take up my responsibilities. I couldn’t leave my mom just like that so the survivor in me fought back. All those bullets we dodged during our activist days Lincoln, that resilience and fighting spirit, I guess must have come back tenfold!

LM:

As you were being treated from this incurable disease, you became deaf. Was that the last straw for you?

AM:

In a way yes, it was. My journey with my illness had been such an arduous one. First it was the HIV diagnosis, then at age 38 I went into pre-mature menopause which meant that I could not have children at the prime of my reproductive years. Then I contracted TB, the side effects of which damaged both my auditory nerves and I became deaf. I’m so happy now that all the hard work of our National TB management team has borne positive fruit and that we have had a breakthrough in TB treatment. So excited that the new drug will ensure that all the terrible side effects from the old drug will be a thing of the past. So many like me were not so fortunate but many more lives will be saved now, so I congratulate our team at the National Department of Health for this. From becoming deaf, I had to have a total hip replacement to my right hip because clots were forming in my blood that prevented blood flow to my hip area and thereafter there was a need for a bone graft to my left hip because the same problem from the right hip was developing in the left hip so they had to fix that before it deteriorated further. Both hip operations were done in 2010 with the first one done when our country was hosting the soccer world cup and South Africa and the world were enjoying that spectacular show of the world’s football talent. I was under the knife then and missed the opening ceremony of that world cup (SIGHS). Now eight years later, I am told that I now need to have a shoulder replacement done as well because the same problem that developed in my hip bones has now developed in my shoulder as well. I said to my doctor this can’t be, I’m turning into a bionic woman now, soon I won’t be able to pass through airport security, can you imagine (LAUGHING)

So, to come back to your question, when I discovered that I was becoming deaf, it was just a big sigh moment when I said to myself, what more still lies ahead, what more am I still to face. It was a moment of feeling slightly defeated that in spite of my efforts to keep a positive mind and ensure that I overcame all the challenges with my health, this too befell me.

LM:

How was being deaf a defining challenge for you? How did you tackle this challenge?

AM:

I tackled it in true Alex form, taking in the news, letting the disappointment sink in and immediately trying to figure out a way forward, a way to make it work and embrace my new disability. It’s not always easy but one can’t wallow in self-pity.

At first, I was at a loss yes, because I became deaf at a time when my health from my disease was now improving, I was at a stage where I felt I could now go back to the world of work. I could now go out and restart my career, so when I became deaf I was dumbfounded. What now, how do I find work when I can’t hear, when all I have ever known and the work I have done has been based on my ability to hear in order to execute my work responsibilities. What now? The reality of the disability itself now became even more profound because finding work became a big challenge.

While I was facing the challenge of finding work, I became increasingly restless because I am not one to sit idly not utilising my time effectively, so I decided to enroll to further my studies. I encountered more challenges on this journey too. I could not enroll for a “normal” course of study because I would not be able to hear during lectures, there were a lot of scholarships available that I could have obtained but I would not be able to gain access to the curriculum because of my hearing loss. Next option to consider was online study, a better option for someone in my situation I thought, but I could not do that either because I did not have the finance to enroll for online study as I was not working, still trying to rise from my debilitating illness. The feedback I received from most institutions I contacted for online study was that they do not provide bursaries because it is assumed that when you opt for online study it is because you are in employment and it is your heavy work schedule and not finances that makes it difficult for you not to be able to undertake the normal study route. That was the catch 22 situation I found myself in. Then I approached one of our esteemed institutions of higher learning where I could have easily gotten a scholarship and support with my disability but there again, I could not enroll because of my disability.

Here is the thing, there are various degrees of hearing loss and deafness varies from person to person. I fall under the group of persons with hearing loss who lost their hearing late in life so my situation at that time was like this. I was deaf, I did not know South African Sign Language (SASL), the hearing aids that had been prescribed did not assist me to enable me to hear speech, so I can make out messages when people talk to me, they only enhanced the sounds around me, so they were not helpful to me at all. At this particular institution, while they catered for Deaf people in that if you belonged to Deaf culture and knew SASL, there would be interpreters to assist you and if you wear a hearing aid, there was a loop system that they use that connects to your hearing aid so that together with the assistance of a SASL interpreter (SASLi) you would be able to gain access to the curriculum. That was not the case for me because all forms of reasonable accommodation they provided would not assist me. This was the additional challenge I faced which made me to ultimately give up on the pursuit of my studies and refocus my efforts on finding work.

Just to share a bit more with your readers if I may, there are various definitions of Deafness and classifications of people with hearing loss as approved and accepted by the South African Disability Alliance.

The first is Deaf with an upper case “D” which is an adjective referring to people who identify themselves as members of a cultural and linguistic minority group and use SASL as a primary means of communication. “Deaf” is the descriptor for this distinct group with its own cultural identity and language.

Then there is deaf with a lower case “d” which refers to persons with total hearing loss not using SASL as a primary medium of communication. This group uses various means of communication and assistive devices or a combination thereof. This group primarily aligns with impairment, disability and the hearing world.

We then have people who are Hard of Hearing, this is an adjective referring to a person who is audiologically deaf and who uses a spoken language or SASL as a means of communication and learning

Then there is a classification of Hearing Impaired which refers to persons with varying degrees of hearing loss not using SASL as a primary medium of communication, who use various means of communication and assistive technologies. These include speech, lip reading, hearing aid systems, cochlear implants, Bone Anchored Hearing Aid (BAHA) etc.

We also have people who are Deafblind. Deafblindness is a combination of hearing and vision loss in any variation of the combination in one human body. This results in difficulty for the person to get information and communication as well as mobility challenges.

I took the conscious decision to inculcate myself into Deaf culture and took lessons in SASL so I could be able to communicate. At present I use both lip reading and SASL as a means of communication.

LM:

In 2015 you founded the Deaf Empowerment Firm (DEF). What is the focus of your organization?

AM:

DEF is a company whose mission is to transform the economic empowerment landscape of members of the Deaf community.

We are a strategic partner to some of the large entities who came on board and partnered with us in relation, but not limited to; Career Development and Work Readiness Programmes, Skills Development Programmes, Sustainable Work Placements, Diversity Training in the Workplace, Entrepreneurship and SMME Development Programmes and Socio-Economic Outreach Programmes.

Our approach is aligned to talk to our clients’ transformation policies, create value proposition and integrate Deaf individuals within corporate South Africa and communities at large. We ensure that our clients obtain value in the solutions we provide that enable them to meet their strategic business objectives and enhance their role in corporate responsibility.

Our intention is to be part of the solution in integrating 2% of South Africans with disabilities into the economy, create awareness and contribute meaningfully to creating space for economic participation by members of the Deaf community.

Our main area of focus is skills development, sustainable work placements and SMME incubation.

LM:

How was this journey for you to grow DEF?

AM:

It has not been an easy one for various reasons; Firstly, as an SMME, getting the start-up capital to ensure my dream and my vision is realised was a big challenge. Government has created a lot of opportunities to assist SMME’s but access to those opportunities is still a big challenge for SMME’s and this creates a very frustrating environment. After a lot of effort and a long search for support to get my company off the ground, I was assisted by the SAB Foundation with seed capital and that’s how I was able to get the company going.

Secondly, the product I am providing to employers, which is Deaf labour, is a very difficult one to sell. The majority of my candidates do not have the required entry requirements for available jobs which is matric and or work experience. The background to the education of the Deaf child is that a mountain of challenges still need to be overcome in order for Deaf children to be on par with their counterparts. Some of the challenges that Deaf children face on their educational journey are that not all schools for the Deaf are equipped to provide the curriculum up to Matric so you find Deaf children leaving school before they are able to complete their Matric; SASL not being recognised as a language of teaching and learning itself presents a huge learning challenge for the Deaf child; Teachers in some schools are not fluent in SASL which makes delivering the curriculum a huge challenge. While our government, in consultation with organisations and schools of the Deaf have been very hard at work to change this status quo with the introduction of programmes to upskill teachers at schools for the Deaf and SASL becoming an examinable subject now in 2018 there are still large numbers of Deaf people who have long left school and were not recipients of these interventions and are therefore excluded. Due to Deaf learner exclusion for many years, 1 out of 3 Deaf adults are functionally illiterate. As a result of poor or no education at all, Deaf children grow up to be adults excluded from tertiary education which in turn leads to exclusion from employment opportunities. We are talking able bodied people of working age who have the desire and willingness to work and contribute to the economic development of their country, but opportunities are closed to them due to all these barriers.

These are the challenges that DEF has to grapple with when we go out seeking employment opportunities for our candidates and we are working to address.

Then there is the third challenge; The communication barrier – Because of the unique communication mode of my candidates, employers are still fearful to include them in their work places. To address these challenges therefore and ensure that we create space for our candidates to find employment, the placement of our candidates cannot be done in the “normal” way that one places candidates. We must first “cook” our candidates so that we can provide a quality candidate to our clients. We must sensitise employers about inclusion of the Deaf in their work places and provide employers with the necessary tools for successful integration of the Deaf in their work places.

Employer fears is another challenge we encounter as we try to ensure placement of our Deaf candidates. There are still huge fears among employers on how they will communicate with the Deaf in their work places, how they will integrate and ensure inclusivity in their work places. We address these by conducting disability awareness and sensitisation workshops with our clients where we teach them about diversity, inclusivity and how to communicate with the Deaf. We ensure that we empower employers with the necessary tools for successful integration of the Deaf in their work places. So, ours is not a pure placement service but we provide all the support necessary to ensure that the placement is a success for both our client and our candidate.

LM:

What type of people are you placing in organizations and how many have you placed so far?

AM:

Our focus is purely on placement of Deaf people. We took that conscious decision to work only with Deaf candidates for two reasons;

Firstly, although disability is wide and complex and most persons with disabilities encounter challenges in a myriad of ways, the Deaf are even more excluded because of their poor levels of education and their unique communication method which has created a situation where they are the most marginalized group even within the disability sector. After I became Deaf and integrated into the Deaf community I saw first-hand the extent of this exclusion where the Deaf do not have access to information so even jobs that get advertised do not reach their attention, the struggle to even have an interpreter present when a Deaf person goes for an interview still remains. Simple things that we would take for granted that are such a big step in ensuring that the Deaf are accommodated.

Secondly, when one works with persons with disabilities (PWD’s), one has to be in a position where as a service provider to your client, you ensure that proper reasonable accommodation is in place in the work place so the PWD can do their job. You have to provide the support to your client and empower them with the tools to be able to include the PWD in their work place and to do that, I believe, you have to know the type of disability you are dealing with. Disability is complex, and you cannot take chances with people’s lives just to secure a contract and place yourself as an expert of all disabilities because you are then creating a situation where you are placing both the client and the candidate in danger. So, for us at DEF, we decided to focus on the disability we know so as to provide the maximum support.

We have made strides in the two years since we have been in operation and have managed to place one hundred and seventy-five (175) of our candidates who came to us for help. The opportunities range in nature from contract employment, permanent employment, learnerships, internships/work place exposure programmes, placements post learning programmes and entrepreneurship and SMME development.

We have received support from partners who saw our vision and came on board to provide opportunities to our Deaf people. The partnerships have been phenomenal in so many ways in that these opportunities have served to reaffirm what we have been saying all along that all our people need is just one chance, the opportunity to prove what they can do, and our partners have truly been wonderful, and I can’t thank them enough for the opportunities they have provided. They have shown that it is possible to have disability as an integral part of your business strategy and allow your work place to embrace diversity. Our partners have just been so wonderful, they have made such a big impact on the lives of our candidates and I give a big thank you to them.

LM:

How do companies contact DEF when they would like to place people who are Deaf or who have listening disabilities?

AM:

We have a website through which employers can contact us and our address is www.deafempowerment.co.za

Our office contact number is, +27 11 936 4412 – Contact person, Ms. Lindiwe Dladla

We are on skype on; Deaf Empowerment DEF

We are also on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DeafEmpowement/)  

LM:

What support should companies provide for people they take into their workforce?

AM:

Companies should ensure that there are provisions for reasonable accommodation for PWD’s that they bring into their work places. They also need to be aware that there are varying methods of ensuring that PWD’s become aware of the opportunities that they have within their work places.

We live in such a high-tech age now and while technology is very good in advancing us as nations, some aspects are not so good for PWD’s. Technology has its place but may not be the most effective method of recruiting the Deaf when opportunities become available.

For example, government departments and companies advertise and the method of responding to the advert is online where they say people seeking opportunities must submit their CV’s through an online platform and they conduct their recruitment in that way. The majority of Deaf people do not have access to online platforms and even when they do, they may not understand some of the processes of an online platform. They still need someone to explain to them in SASL what the process is all about. Remember English is not their first language with a different language structure to SASL so the process may be confusing and ultimately, they given up even before they have started the process.

We try as far as possible to sensitise employers to this and that the human and personal face to face element is still the most effective way of recruiting Deaf candidates.  Employers need to ensure that access to information is widespread so that we ensure inclusivity and that no job seeker is left behind.

That is just the first hurdle in getting Deaf people into places of work. Once they are there, we encourage employers to make the work place as inclusive as possible. Learn more about disability in general and Deafness in particular. Seek our help so we can give you a step by step guide on how to integrate the Deaf in your work place. Reasonable accommodation is paramount, ensure that your work place has sufficient lighting, so the environment is always clearly illuminated for the Deaf. Remember that Deaf people are very visual and rely on their sight to be aware of their surroundings, so the environment has to be well illuminated. Ensure the work place is well sign posted so the Deaf can know where what is, clear signage on notice boards, machines etc. Invest in your new Deaf employee when they first arrive in your work place. The first three to six months of the probation period are the most critical and should be dedicated to showing them how things are done. Deaf people learn better when you show them rather than when you tell them what to do so invest in that, show the right way and wrong way of doing things and from there, they can run with their functions on their own. Lastly and most importantly, do not be afraid of us. We can do anything that hearing people can do, we just can’t hear so interact, learn a few signs a day, ask us to give you a sign name so you are easily identifiable in Deaf culture and let the work place be a happy and productive environment for all your employees.

We have made strides as DEF in changing employer mindsets in the two years we have been operational, and we have had wonderful partnerships with organisations who came and board to support our candidates in various ways. We have been able to create opportunities for our candidates and more are in the pipeline.

We are making inroads into the ICT space as well where we are currently developing Deaf coders with the aim of establishing an ICT innovation Hub where our coders can work on ICT projects including software testing and automation. We are also establishing a Deaf entrepreneurship centre of excellence in order to incubate Deaf entrepreneurs and allow the space for Deaf entrepreneurs to thrive.

While we acknowledge our achievements thus far, we are also mindful of the long journey ahead as the need is still very large in the community for Deaf people to gain skills, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.


LM:

In your mind, how receptive are corporates, businesses and entrepreneurs in giving workers who are Deaf or have hearing loss opportunities in the workplace?

AM:

People are still very afraid; fear of the unknown is more the driving force. It is a constant struggle for us who work in the disability space to break down those barriers, to teach and to sensitise on an ongoing basis so that we can finally dismantle those barriers. And it can be done, we have seen it with the partnerships we have made over the past two years and the four years before DEF when I worked in this space, where our partners took the strategic business decision to embrace their fears and now they are amazed at how our candidates are performing and integrating so well in their work places. It’s teaching, sharing and enabling a change of mindset. Deaf people have been excluded for so long that sometimes it is just a matter of making people aware of what they were not aware of before. A simple situation of just sitting down and explaining things to people so that they can begin to understand and realise that their fears were unfounded. It’s about embracing diversity.

The feedback we get from our employer partners is incredible. They tell us how well our candidates are performing and integrating into their work places, how good they are at their work, that they are focused, disciplined and hard working with no time for chit chat. So, the barriers can be broken down.

You do of course get the odd bad report where the placement is not so successful but that is the case with any placement, Deaf or hearing. Any work place goes through employee challenges whether the said employee has disability or not. It is the function of HR to deal with such. The starting point is to create the space for inclusion of PWD’s, providing the support and ensuring that they thrive in their jobs.

LM:

You grew up as a student, gender and political activist, you are now a champion for the rights of those who are Deaf and have hearing loss. How different have you found this struggle?

AM:

(CHUCKLES), I laugh because I always say to my friends, phew, I thought my struggle days were over when we attained our freedom but alas God has His own plans for me. Or perhaps this is what He was preparing me for during our struggle days Lincoln!

It is yet another struggle terrain. I got inculcated into the Deaf world and saw so much of what is wrong that cannot be left unchallenged. From the education system where the majority of Deaf children receive inferior education that does not equip them for the world of work, to the fight to have their own language and culture recognized, the struggles are many. Can you imagine in your country of birth where you are not able to gain access to information or receive basic services that are your constitutional rights just because people who are supposed to provide those services to you cannot communicate with you. Going to a doctor with a private personal matter and having to have a 3rd party present during that consultation simply because the doctor cannot communicate with you. How embarrassing and humiliating! So, the issue of SASL is not just about language, it is about the basic human rights of the Deaf so that they too, can live a life of dignity like the rest of our populace.

The terrain in which I have chosen to wage this struggle is that of economic emancipation because that is where my expertise lies. I tell my candidates when they come through our doors, that our aim at DEF is to make sure that one day you have a house of your own, that you drive a car of your own, that you have career you can proudly say through this, I can be able to provide for my family. That you can have big dreams and reach for the stars if that is what your heart desires. That people can look at you with respect when they see that you are no body’s burden, you can stand on your own two feet and be part of the bigger movement to move your country forward because you can proudly say, I have work, or I have my own business. I am paying my taxes and I am contributing to the growth and development of my own country. That is the pride I try to instill in my candidates, many of whom don’t even need me to tell them this because it is already in their psyche, they have already overcome so much in their young lives and already possess the conqueror spirit. What they need is just someone to reassure them that it is possible, and you can do it.

I work with an amazing section of our community and I’m amazed and in awe everyday by their tenacity, resilience and fighting spirit. They are my biggest inspiration. You think we were resilient Lincoln during our struggle days, you ain’t seen nothing yet till you meet my Deaf youngsters!

We have a powerful work force in South Africa whose potential we haven’t even begun to tap into.

LM:

You then wrote your inspiring book, “A woman of indomitable character”, what did you want to convey through this book?

AM:

The book, to my surprise, was part of my healing journey and although it is fiction, it served a great role in keeping me sane and allowing me the space to shift back into my old self. It was a process that served to bring my mind and soul back into the old Alex I was before my illness and helped me to form within my mind a space that reaffirmed that I still had the ability to function as a whole and productive human being. I could, in my mind go back to the world I knew before, tap into that energy and restart the engine and be able to say, I think I am ready to go back and reclaim my life now. So, it was my journey back in so many ways so to speak. I didn’t realise this while I was writing it until after it was complete and found myself in a better space spiritually.

I wrote it as a call made during one of the TV talk shows I was watching back in 2007, I think it was 3talk or Motswako, I can’t remember well. There was a book review session on the show that day a challenge came from that show that we needed more writers telling South African love stories.

I’m not a writer but me being me, I couldn’t shy away from the challenge. Also, I got serious plodding from a friend saying you can do this, so I set off and put pen to paper.

The setting is in corporate South Africa in the 90’s and though it is a love story, I didn’t want it to be just a normal boy meets girl type of story. I wanted to incorporate the challenges we were facing as a country at the time with the whole transformation process in corporate South Africa. The struggles that Black professionals had to overcome just to prove their capabilities. It puts a lot of emphasis on the issue of women’s rise to positons of power and breaks down the stereotypes labelled against women of essence in leadership positions. So that is the plot of the book.

Part 2

LM:

As a former political activist, how do you feel about how our country has fared over the last 24 years?

AM:

We have made very significant progress relative to where we came from before 1994. We have a Constitution and Bill of Rights that enable us to speak truth to power. A number of opportunities have opened for all of us. We are now part of the global community of nations. Yes of course, there are still many challenges which have to be urgently resolved and chief among them being, unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Like any other nation in the world, there are those who will take advantage of our democracy by engaging in illegal and unlawful acts of corruption and by so doing, rob the most vulnerable in our society of basic services that they deserve. We also seem to have lowered our guard against opportunistic tendencies of tribalism, racism and misogyny.

As a former political activist, I think we should have continued with our activism but in a way of deepening democracy and ensuring that the ideals that we fought for expressed in the Freedom Charter are a reality today.

LM:

How do you feel when you see former comrades involved in corruption and ethical scandals, where did we go wrong in the broader liberation movement?

AM:

It is very disheartening to watch some of our comrades deviate so much from the path of principles that we were taught during our struggle. For comrades to so easily forget the multitudes of our people who rely on them making our country work and providing the opportunities that we fought for, it really angers one when you see what it is going on.

I also think we are also to blame as former revolutionaries in that we relinquished too much of our own power to those we trusted and put into positons of leadership. While many of our Black professionals tackled the development of our country on other platforms and performed so excellently in their respective chosen fields, we left the political space unchecked. For too long we failed to hold those we entrusted with our democracy accountable and that gave them the space to run amok.  

Something has gone terribly wrong with our mass democratic movement and we need serious introspection, we need to go back to the drawing board and bring back the values that guided our struggle for emancipation.

LM:

We have a very forward-looking Constitution and enlightened laws that are meant to protect those with disabilities- why are we still battling to create an environment for all our people to succeed?

AM:

Lack of commitment and political will to implementation of our policies and the provisions of our bill of rights. The foundation has been laid and the guidelines are there. South Africa is indeed very forward thinking on these issues, we have signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocols, we have the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its implementation matrix, so the foundation truly is there but people in charge of implementation are sleeping at the wheel. There is no sense of urgency to implement and ensure that PWD’s are included.

We find that organisations only become alive to their responsibilities when it is time for audits and they hurriedly rush to tick compliance boxes so that they can pass the audits. There is no meaningful concerted effort to work with organisations of people with disabilities so that proper programmes can be drafted that address the challenges PWD’s face in earnest.

What needs to happen is for employer organisations to take transformation seriously and move away from the box ticking exercise but ensure that transformation becomes an integral part of their business practices. There needs to be well thought out and streamlined interventions that will bring lasting change to the lives of PWD’s.

LM:

You are a member of the Board of CBM, what role does CBM play in South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world?

AM:

CBM is a Christian international development organisaton working to transform lives and improve the quality of life of PWD’s in the most disadvantaged societies in the world. It works to address poverty both as a cause and a consequence of disability working in partnership with local and international civil society organisations to influence policy so as to create an inclusive society for all. It is a federation composed of eleven-member associations around the world including South Africa.

CBM SA, on whose board I sit, is the newest member of the broader CBM family and our flagship programmes are in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo where we run our Rural Ability Programmes (RAP) in partnership with local organisations on the ground.

LM:

How have all these hardships shaped you?

AM:

All that I have gone through Lincoln has taught me how precious life is. You are given one life and you need to make the most of it and not take anything for granted. This experience has reinforced in me the value of friendships and that I cannot always do everything alone, that I need to allow myself to depend on others when the need arises. I am this person that always wants to be there for everyone, taking care of everyone else and the experience I have gone through has really humbled me in that regard.

LM:

Looking back from what you know now, what advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?

AM:

Be more cautious in your choices. Learn to stand your ground. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be more forgiving of yourself. Live in the present and stop being so serious. Most importantly, enjoy life, stop stressing about the bigger things so much. (Remember that girl who was a free-spirited ballroom dancer, gliding on the dance floor? Go find her)

LM:

You give a lot of talks to young people, what message do you give them about your life and the lessons learnt?

AM:

Your circumstances do not determine who you will become in your life. Life will knock you down more often that you can bear, yours is to get up, reflect, dust yourself off and get back on that horse. Life does not owe you anything. You can do anything you set your mind on, you just need to believe in yourself, seek the guidance mentors who will lead you towards your goals and trust in God.

LM:

When you look back on your life, how would you like to answer the question, asked by Prof Clay Christiansen, “How will I measure my life”?

AM:

By the friends I have and the lives I have touched

LM:

What value has been played by your family and friends on your journey?

AM:

Oh Lincoln, don’t take me there. My eyes fill up with tears each time I think of the role my family, community and friends played in my life’s journey, particularly when the chips were down. I have been blessed with the most amazing mom any child could wish for. Going beyond the call of duty to take her of her cub, to provide the love and unconditional support when I needed her the most. Never judging but just being there, letting me lean on her. My sister, herself a diabetic, growing up immensely and chipping in when the family needed her to. My aunts and the extended family, neighbours and my church for their acceptance, love, support and prayers. My friends, phew, rallying around me and refusing the leave my side when I needed them. Bringing stacks of groceries when I could not provide for my family, taking turns to take me to the doctor helping my mom out, contributing for me to go and take my SASL lessons. So much love, so much support. The bond that we developed with some from school days and those from UDW has stayed with us close to 30 years and more. Most people who become disabled find themselves losing friends. People living with HIV lose friends and loved ones all the time. People become scared and ultimately distance themselves from you. My friends did the opposite, they rallied around me and included me in everything that we used to do as friends before. When we get together they fight over who gets to write for me what the conversation is all about at our gatherings. I feel so pampered and spoilt in their presence. Saying I am Blessed is an understatement, but you know, God is just so awesome like that. When He decides to favour you uyayibaxa (He goes overboard)!

LM:

What still is in your Bucket list, is there another book on the horizon?

AM:

Travel, travel and more travelling. Except for my work travels, I really haven’t been much anywhere. I need to change that. Another book is already brewing in my head but now I have fallen into my old habits of not making time for anything else but work. I’m working on changing that!

LM:

Thank you so much Alex, you are a true role model and inspiration to so many, through your life journey you have demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

AM:

Thank you, Lincoln, I dislike talking about myself, but I couldn’t say no when you decided to honour me in this way. Thank you, my friend, for the privilege of talking to you about my life’s journey.

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