South AFrican Freedom Fighter, Philanthropist, Activist, Cape Town, South AFrica

It felt surreal to finally meet with Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. In front of me was a woman and a true leader who was in the trenches during the apartheid, active in the national liberation movement, an inspiration to women, black South Africans, and other traditionally disenfranchised people in her country. The list goes on, as she also served as a Chair of ANC's Parliamentary Caucus, was the first woman to hold position of Deputy Minister of Defense AND Deputy Minister of Health. In this latter role, she resisted government's position of denial of the severity of the AIDS epidemic and was at the time the loudest voice in the government promoting evidence-based medical treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Nozizwe is a champion for women. She helped establish the African Women’s Peace Table, a partnership forum for integrating women’s perspectives on issues of peace and security in Africa and co-founded Embrace Dignity, women’s human rights organization advocating for law reform to end sex trafficking and the demand for prostitution. It was in this latter capacity that I met Mrs. Madlala-Routledge and her team of dedicated young women working on shifting attitudes of government, public and survivors from the blame of prostituted women and girls, towards an understanding of the conditions that lead to their vulnerability, a recognition of their inherent dignity and an improved public awareness of the harms and oppression of prostitution. Seems that Nozizwe's mantra, since her role in "the struggle" for liberation to now, is that all people have inherent dignity and deserve to live lives free from exploitation. I had the privilege of soaking up some of her wisdom and her fascinating stories of visiting Soviet Union, Europe and US and working with Nelson Mandela.

1. Name

My name is Nozizwe Routledge. I was born Nozizwe Madlala. So, in my political career I went with the double barrel surname of Madlala-Routledge. This was also the feminist in me saying my identity should not be subsumed by the institution of marriage under a patriarchal system that requires women to abandon their maiden surnames in favour of their husband’s.

2. Where is your hometown?

I was born in Umzumbe, near Port Shepstone, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

Executive Director and Co-founder of Embrace Dignity

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?

My life has been a rich journey that took me from a rural village during Apartheid South Africa to Inanda Seminary, a prestigious girls’ school near Durban that gave me a strong academic foundation. I joined the liberation struggle and co-founded and led the Natal Organisation of Women, an affiliate of the United Democratic Front (UDF) established in 1983 as a mass democratic opposition to apartheid laws. I also joined the ANC underground and participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a forum that negotiated the transition from Apartheid. A highlight in my life was to see Nelson Mandela being freed and being part of the negotiations for a new democratic order in South Africa as well as voting for the first time in a non-racial, democratic and non-sexist national election, following which we elected Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Another highlight was to be appointed as deputy minister of Defence, a first for a woman and a pacifist in South Africa to hold this position. I am proud of the role I played as Chairperson of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus, a cross party women’s caucus for applying a gender lens to all laws passed by our parliament. I am also proud of the role I played to bring about a change in HIV policy in South Africa at a time when the President and the Minister of Health were denying the scientific basis and response to HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

5. What did you study in school?

Mathematics and science were my favourite subjects and I wanted to become a medical doctor. I entered medical school at a time of political upheaval and struggle to end apartheid. I became politically involved and joined the black consciousness student movement under the South African Students Organisation (SASO), led by Steve Bantu Biko. I could not complete my university due to my political activism. I then trained as a Medical Laboratory Technologist, specialising in Microbiology. I resigned to work full time in the liberation movement, returning later to university to study social science and graduated with an Honours degree in Philosophy.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

At twenty I saw young women in my village getting married or getting children but knew this was not for me. I was raised by a single woman who valued education and who would give everything to keep me at school. I loved reading and wanted to study and be a professional. I grew up under apartheid and had no idea that our country would one day be free and that I would be in the negotiations for a new constitution that guaranteed the freedoms we now enjoy in South Africa. I never imagined I would enter formal politics and be elected into South Africa’s first democratic parliament. When I gave birth to my first son I called him Mandela to honour a man I did not imagine I would meet in person, a man who was jailed for life for fighting for our freedom.

7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

I had hoped to qualify as a medical doctor and was disappointed that I was not able to complete my studies. At the same time, I was happy to be part of a political movement to end apartheid and to bring about change for all in my country.

8. Advice for other women?

Never underestimate yourself. Never give up on your dream. You are a child of the universe …you have a right to be here.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

The system of male domination is pervasive and has become entrenched in every aspect of society. To achieve change, we need to embrace feminist values and to act in solidarity with the most marginalised and oppressed in our effort to bring about a safer, more just and more equal world. A key aspect of the objectification and oppression of women is the system of prostitution and the commercial sex industry. Patriarchy perpetuates prostitution and prostitution perpetuates patriarchy, a vicious cycle that can be broken by shifting the burden of responsibility and criminality from those who sell sex to those who buy or exploit the position of vulnerability caused by inequality.

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

I feel tall everywhere I am. I like travel and seeing the world but my home is where I am happiest.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

When I was a child I used to watch my mother making clothes for us and I learned to use a sewing machine. My grandmother had an old Singer sewing machine that often broke down. I was proud when I was able to help her fix it. I enjoy using my hands to create and my mind to develop new ideas. I love reading and hope to write a book. I have a bicycle and hope to learn to ride it one day.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up?           I want to help transform spaces of oppression and exclusion. I want to own a cottage by the beach and live a life sustained by the free gifts nature has given us. I want to leave a legacy that future generations will enjoy long after I am gone.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

Fear of falling off a bicycle.

14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life?

I have had a rich and diverse life but if I had another go at life, I would spend more time enjoying life and the beauty around me, the sea and the mountains.

15. What inspires you?

When I see people achieve against all odds.

16. What are you hopeful about?

The resilience of the human spirit

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Travel lightly through life. Respect and respond to that of God in others. Enjoy the simple things in life – most of them are free

18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Love and believe in yourself.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I recently finished reading “A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, which I have already passed on to a young feminist at Embrace Dignity. I believe books should be shared. I love crime fiction - Stieg Larsen and Deon Meyer - probably from my love of puzzles.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?

Angela Davis inspired me as a young woman. I nominate Pamela Shifman, Executive Director of the NoVo Foundation, Pierette Pape of the European Women’s Lobby, Promise Sethembiso Mthembu and Bernedette Muthien.

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)? and Embrace Dignity