She's determined to change the world

Friday, August 7, 2009
By: 
Gabi Khumalo

When Deputy Minister for Public Works Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu was in Grade 4, she made a commitment to herself that she would change the world. 

And her being partially sighted ironically became her inspiration to do this. 

Speaking to BuaNews at her newly renovated offices in Pretoria, Ms Bogopane-Zulu says it's no coincidence she is a deputy minister today.

"From the day I realised I was different, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to be somebody. I knew I would be the deputy minister and I worked hard to make sure that I'll get there and it came sooner than I thought," she said.

Being partially sighted, she had wanted to be in a position where she would give a voice to people with disabilities.

The deputy minister describes her life as "complicated." But, one gets the feeling that she has a plan in place to not allow it to be. 

The 38-year-old mother of three daughters, 19, 13 and 5 explains that on a day-to-day basis , she has to make a choice between waking up early to make her children lunch boxes or waking up early to attend a breakfast meeting.

"It's not easy; you have to make choices. I have chosen to have a balance in my life. Otherwise it becomes all about work." 

She makes a point of ensuring that her diary is not loaded with late events and that she is home most evenings. 

"I should at least have three days in a week, where I will knock off at 6pm, so that I can spend time with my kids and help them with their home work. I also participate in their activities so that they feel important."

She said the "wife part" is taken care of because she works with her husband.

The Deputy Minister was able to hire her husband as her guide, although it took some convincing to her staff and protectors that she needed an extra member to help her.

She explains that it was difficult having to justify why she needed to hire her husband, but is unapologetic about it. "They didn't understand that blindness involves having to touch people to get around. I was more comfortable with him doing this." 

When attending meetings, she did not want people to have to worry about her; how to get her to her seat or get her tea during breaks.

"I love being me and don't want people to take care of me. I want people to feel comfortable around me. I don't want another minister to make a cup of tea for me, the next thing I will be forced to be nice to that person because she is helping me," she laughs. 

"When it's lunchtime, my husband brings tea for me and makes sure that I'm sorted," she told BuaNews.

She further conceded that it has not always been an easy task sensitising people to her needs since arriving in her post.

"You arrive in the environment where policies don't always cater for your needs. As the deputy minister, you ask how do the policies that govern the executive, accommodate me?" she questions.

A question perhaps asked by most people with disabilities, when they enter a workplace. 

However, the Deputy Minister was forceful enough to ensure that she is allowed to use specialised technology to help her read documents. 

At first, this was not always welcome at high-level and confidential meetings, but this has changed.

Among the equipment brought in for her to perform her duties included voice recognition software; a scanner which converts documents into large print on her computer and a Braille printer and keyboard. 

However, it's not all up-hill for her. "All my confidential documents are in Braille and I can read them openly anywhere I choose, as most people cannot read Braille," she says with a chuckle.

When asked if government is taking women's issues seriously, Ms Bogopane - Zulu says it's not a question that needs asking anymore.

"It's something that is being done, it's non-negotiable - South Africa is expected to reach the 50 percent women representation. We are the majority." 

She further challenged women to make use of the opportunity made available by government to improve themselves. "This is the time, it doesn't get better than this. We need to utilise our position to change the lives of women. We need to do it for our sisters out there." 

So, what is next for this fiercely independent and strong woman?

"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that I would not mind being the first disabled President. This is South Africa - and anything can happen in this country!"