u-turn 25 birthday



Women’s Month could be seen as a tick-boxed commemorative month, when all the pleasantries are done to celebrate women.

“Accelerating socio-economic opportunities for empowerment of women” is the theme of this year’s Women’s Month.

We can decide if the theme will be embedded in lofty speeches or if we will put it into practice.

“What we need is a level playing field and a dismantling of attitudes which prevents women from advancing,” Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said at the first annual Kwara Gender Equality Conference in 2020. She had to break the glass ceiling in the political landscape when she became president of Liberia in 2005 and the first female head of state in Africa.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2011, for her non-violent efforts to promote peace and the fight for women’s rights.

As a toddler, I admired Margaret Thatcher and later, Benazir Bhutto, whose autobiography inspired me when I read it as a teenager.

I saw the possibilities of women leading countries. Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is another woman who broke through the political status quo. Her resumé is filled with leadership accomplishments. She is the former deputy president of South Africa and former UN under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women.

As a child, the women around me, like my mother and grandmother, were teachers, factory workers, shop assistants, domestic workers and nurses because their economic potential was stunted by apartheid.

Girls growing up in impoverished communities may assume that it is impossible for them to lead South Africa.

They might not see their mothers, who are domestic workers, or factory workers as leaders, yet they are.

The dean of the Faculty of Informatics and Design at Cape Town University of Technology Professor Tembisa Ngqondi shattered barriers when she obtained her PhD in Information Systems at the University of Fort Hare.

She is an inspiration, from working as a domestic worker to leading a faculty at a university. Her life illustrates that it is possible to break the cycle of poverty.

In South Africa, we stand on the shoulders of great women. On August 9, 1956, about 20 000 women from all walks of life, marched to the Union Buildings against the oppressive pass laws, which included domestic workers and factory workers. One of the leaders of the march was Lilian Masediba Matabane Ngoyi.

In December 1956, she was arrested for high treason. She was among the 156 Treason Trialists; the charges against her were dropped in 1960.

She faced multiple imprisonment and banning orders. Once, she spent 71 days in solitary confinement. We might not comprehend what Ngoyi went through, when she was more than two months in isolation, with the only human contact being with police officers and the prison wardens.

The apartheid government could not destroy her power to fight for the liberation of our country amid of their torture to break her mentally, physically and emotionally. It is sad that she died in 1980 and did not witness a democratic South Africa.

The AU’s Agenda 2063, Aspiration 6 states: “An Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children.”

Women who are experiencing homelessness, whether sleeping rough on the streets or living in a shelter, might feel disempowered and not see themselves as leaders. While I was living at the Stellenbosch night shelter, I was asked by the manager to facilitate woman empowerment sessions. The women shared that they felt that there was no way out of homelessness.

It is hard to break the cycle. If they are fortunate to live in a shelter, they can be there for only three months. If they don’t find alternative accommodation, they will have to go to another shelter.

It is also a challenge for them if they find employment when they have to be back at the shelter by 5pm or 6pm.

In Cape Town, there are second-phase shelters for people experiencing homelessness and who are working. In Stellenbosch there are no second-phase shelters. I broke the cycle of homelessness when I joined U-turn Homeless Ministries. It is an NGO that equips people with skills to overcome homelessness.

On their Phase 3 Work-readiness programme, its Champions live in transitional houses. The female Champions at one of U-turn’s houses are living in a safe, dignified home environment, they are able to focus on their recovery. With the assistance of a therapeutic team, their potential is cultivated.

Christine Lombardt and Bianca Rabbaney are U-turn graduates and have managerial positions in the organisation that equipped them to conquer homelessness and drug addiction.

Christine Lombardt manages the clothing distribution centre and Bianca is the southern suburbs retail area manager who oversees seven charity shops. Their lives echo that women who are experiencing homelessness can be empowered into leadership positions.

From the women sleeping outside on the cold pavement to girls in the township, they should all know that they have the potential to lead the charge to build a prosperous South Africa. – Cathy Achilles, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times newspaper on August 2023

Photo: Peter Magubane