Former Miss SA aims to empower others

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Former Miss South Africa, Suzette van der Merwe, can never forget the year 1990.

It was a year that she was crowned Miss South Africa and a year that was key in ending the apartheid regime, ushering new hope for the country.

The year 1990 saw the release of the late former President Nelson Mandela from prison, who was released from the Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape, after 27 years of imprisonment, under the apartheid regime.

“That was a very important year in our country. When Mandela was released from prison, the majority of the country was in a jubilant mood. It was a time of great expectation and a time of serious reflection for us South Africans,” says the former beauty queen.

“I wore the Miss South Africa crown in 1990 with great pride knowing that the end of the repressive apartheid regime was near. Four years later, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as our first black President. It was a time for much celebration.”

Now heading cellphone company Cell C’s Foundation, van der Merwe is passionate about the company’s Take A Girl Child To Work Day initiative, that exposes young girls to the work environment.

“I am particularly proud of our 14-year-old Take a Girl Child To Work Day initiative that exposes young women to the workplace and gives them a glimpse of what is possible in terms of a potential career,” she says.

The annual initiative is targeted at high school girl learners and gives them the opportunity to visit a place of work where they experience first-hand the world of work and the various career opportunities available in various industries.

First introduced to the South African business community on 8 May 2003, the initiative has come a long way.

The campaign celebrated its 14th anniversary on Thursday, May 26, 2016, with the theme, “Dream, Believe and Achieve”.The initiative which government supports through the Department of Women and Basic Education has in the past seen President Jacob Zuma being among those who opened their doors to let young girls into their world of work.

The President fielded a series of questions from excited eager to learn schoolgirls when he hosted them at the Union Buildings in 2014.

Things were no different this year when Minister in the Presidency responsible for Women Susan Shabangu hosted 60 girls from various schools across Gauteng at the Union Buildings.

The 60 girls selected were symbolic of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March which saw around 20 000 women march to the Union Buildings in protest against the carrying of pass books on 9 August 1956.

Van der Merwe says the partnership with government is significant in that it shows that the right things are being done to fight inequality.

“Having the support of government and Minister Shabangu gives one a sense of direction. It also underlines our focus that we are doing the right thing for the right reasons. In a small way, we contribute to South Africa’s vision 2030 of fighting inequality,” she explains.

Sixty years since that historic march, women have made progress with more women now in top government positions than at any other time in South African history, says van der Merwe.

However, discrimination, patriarchal attitudes and poor access to quality education continues to plague South Africa.

Education, says Van der Merwe, is key in empowering women with knowledge, skills and self-confidence.

“These qualities enable women to become vibrant contributors to the economy and leading job creators in South Africa,” she notes.

Van der Merwe counts meeting Mandela as one of her proudest moments.

“I had to pinch myself for the honour of being in his presence. One of my prized possessions is a book he signed for my children.”

While the Miss SA platform has afforded her the opportunity to interact with people like South Africa’s first democratically elected president, criticism has not deterred her from her desire to help uplift other women.

“I think when you have been crowned as a beauty queen, people underestimate you and label you but I’ve always had a burning desire to uplift women. It is something I am passionate about, it is something that has driven me at work and in my personal life,” she says.

The mother of two teenagers has refused to give up on life even despite being in a verbally abusive relationship when she was in her 30s.

“I was told I was useless, stupid and lazy and would amount to nothing,” she says of the relationship.

Instead of breaking her, the experience inspired her to take control of her life.

 “I accepted a job offer, worked very hard and became financially independent.”

Often, says Van der Merwe, young women do not have enough belief in themselves.

“Self-confidence and a belief that you deserve the best and that you can achieve your dreams is a big challenge for young women. If you have big dreams and a strong sense of self-worth, half the battle is won.”

She describes herself as a good friend and altruist who has always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.

“I believe that women are strong and capable and need only to be given a chance to let their uniqueness and ability  shine.” –













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