The crowd of 40 that squished into Griffin Hall, Room 3, heard a heartfelt lecture on “Racism, Feminism and Activism in South Africa” from Gertrude Sgwento, founder and manager of SAFE, the organization for South African Female Empowerment, on Wednesday, April 5. Her organization provides grassroots-based support for rape victims, as well as counseling for those who wish to continue or resume schooling and mini-loans to budding entrepreneurs.
Alison Michael ’00, who met and worked with Sgwento in South Africa on a study abroad program and wrote Sgwento’s biography as her senior thesis project, introduced the founder of SAFE. In the introduction, Michael described the hardships Sgwento faced growing up: being sent to her grandparents’ by a mother who didn’t really want her around, gathering her education in bits and pieces as she could, and everywhere facing the obstacles presented to a poor black woman in a South Africa ruled by apartheid.
Michael said, “[Sgwento], despite not having a doctorate, is the most amazing and brilliant woman I have ever met.”
This introduction was followed by a short video documentary describing many of SAFE’s projects and interviewing many of the women who have been impacted by SAFE’s efforts over the years.
Following the video, Sgwento began to talk about the problems faced by just a few of the women she has counseled. Some of the most horrifying examples were those faced by Sgwento’s closest friends. One woman’s daughter had been raped multiple times by the age of 16 (not an uncommon tale by any means in South Africa, Sgwento informed the audience). Another was thrown out of her job after leaving for a week to bury her husband, who had died protecting the company for which they both worked.
Many women have barely enough to pay the rent on the squatters’ houses they own, and even fewer can buy sufficient food for their families.
Schooling is impossible for most of them because it takes money and time that they cannot afford, either for themselves or their children. The difficulties are exacerbated by a highly racist society, where “people in the suburbs and cities say ‘it’s their problem,’ that is, a black problem,” Sgwento noted.
Regarding the problems she has faced as a black woman in rural South Africa, Sgwento told the audience, “men may be oppressed, but women are being oppressed three or four times: for being human, for being a woman, for being black and for being educated.”
Sgwento hopes to change all that. Her programs work to give women dignity and a sense of self-worth, as well as helping them live on a day-to-day basis. Sgwento’s whole family is involved with the project, too.
Her husband ensures that rape victims are listened to at the local police station (he has been a well-respected member of the force for many years), and her children help to lend food and a sympathetic ear.
Some might wonder, with all the problems she has faced, why Sgwento is not more wrathful. But to her, more anger does no good. She makes an effort to teach her children about their history without instilling in them the anger that has caused so much harm to past generations.
As she puts it, “We’ve got a choice how to deal with anger…Whenever I’m angry, I put my anger back towards my people, to do something positive…I choose to love, I choose to forgive.”
Slowly but surely, this love is making a difference in the lives of those outside Cape Town, where Sgwento works. After 12 years of working with people in the spirit of SAFE (the official organization was founded only two years ago), people in her area know they can always turn to Sgwento.
Even the local police station, normally apathetic to rape victims, knows that they need to pay attention if the Sgwento family is involved.
The talk was followed by an extended question and answer period, in which it was obvious that Sgwento’s talk had touched many audience members. Questions ranged from religion to hospitals to schooling to youth issues. In all of the cases, it was clear that “we [South Africans] are victims, we’ve been victims, and it’s going to take years…but there are a lot of people doing things to help.” Several students followed her to Goodrich for a continued discussion. As Maya Garcia ’02 put it, “I was amazed at her selflessness and her willingness to give up the little she had for people who had nothing. It was a very inspirational presentation.”