In South Africa, Womxn’s Month is a historic tribute to the thousands of womxn, from across the country, who marched to the Union Buildings, on 9 August 1956, to protest the extension of Apartheid Pass Laws to womxn. We celebrate Womxn’s Month as a commemoration of the resilient, remarkable, passionate, multi-faceted, inspirational womxn, that form the past, present, and future of our country.
This Womxn’s Month, in honour and celebration of South African womxn, we want to share with you a short series of conversations with a few inspirational, trailblazing South African womxn. We hope their stories and their words remind you of your own potential, as we continue to shape the future we hope for.
Today’s ‘Trailblazing Womxn’ is Aviwe Funani. Aviwe is passionate about innovative and disruptive leadership geared at building Pan African communities for the growth of the African continent. She has brought innovation and leadership for equality to some of Cape Town's most challenged communities, as well as the African continent. Aviwe is currently the Programme Monitoring Manager at Waves for Change, which is an organisation that uses surf therapy as an intervention for children exposed to repeat trauma in high-risk communities. I spoke to Aviwe about the importance of role models, living purposefully, her work with Waves for Change and how she takes care of her mental health.
In an interview with the Daily Maverick, you recounted a story where you told a friend, “I’m looking for Black, female role models, and I want to be one of them.” How has your personal history shaped your activism? And, can you tell us about why it is so important for young people to have Black, female role models?
Aviwe: I grew up in a family where Black role models were celebrated. Also, coming from the Eastern Cape, it is so easy to point out so many of our local heroes that came from the Eastern Cape and were role models in our view.
I remember coming to Cape Town and finding that sometimes local people are not as celebrated as international people. I remember thinking, “there are so many great South Africans, why do you have to wait for someone who’s not from South Africa before you applaud them?” This doesn’t apply to everyone, but there were certain circles, like at university, where I found that it was more popular to listen to international hip hop than to listen to local hip hop. Whereas growing up with my brothers and my friends, we loved buying the latest South African hip hop album or the latest local magazine. And, we intentionally did that, because we were looking for local rappers to look up to. So, it was ingrained in me that, if you can find people on your doorstep to look up to, look up to them, and understand that if it was possible for them, it’s possible for you. That has really shaped my mindset.
I really want young people and young womxn, more specifically, to know that success and living purposefully is attainable. It is not far away, and it is not something that is only for a few. Anybody can be a role model. Anybody can change their community and their circle of influence. So, that has been the drive around my whole journey. I just want to make living purposefully something that every single person can achieve, regardless of whether they are someone who is working at the till, someone who is cleaning in the street, someone who is a gardener, someone who is a major or a prefect at school. I want them to know that they can be a leader in every sphere.
Waves For Change is an NGO that creates safe spaces, provides access to caring adults, and offers surf therapy to young people from vulnerable communities, with the aim of helping to maintain their mental health and guiding them to make positive life choices. What drew you to Waves For Change, and can you tell us a bit more about your work there?
Aviwe: I am the Programme Manager at Waves For Change, which is a mental health, surf therapy programme. Firstly, I was drawn to their impact and the communities they work with. It is such a unique model for having to talk about mental health in spaces where there is no real conversation around mental health. Also, the fact that it was exposing children to a mental health programme – that was a big thing for me.
I also love the work that Waves For Change does with little girls. We take it for granted, but it is such a huge step, in Black and Brown communities, for little girls to actually be in the water. So, that was one of the biggest things that drew me to Waves For Change. They were very intentional about encouraging more girls in their programme and encouraging the female voice, even within the organisation. Their investment in womxn and girls is still one of the things I admire most about the programme.
Another one of the core missions at Waves For Change is that we intentionally recruit coaches from the same communities that the children come from, so that children can see role models that are from their communities. This helps in making success, or positive decision making, something that is attainable.
You are also very active and vocal on your Instagram account, which is amazing! One thing that you have recently been advocating for is #BuyBlackTuesday, which you use to encourage people to share Black-owned businesses so that more people can financially support Black-owned businesses and build the financial capital of POC. You also started doing a series of lives. Can you tell us about why you think this is an important element of activism that everybody should be partaking in?
Aviwe: For me, supporting Black businesses ties into my advocacy for buying, supporting and promoting local. Last year, I used to do weekly posts called #BoosterBuddy and I used to tag local people, my friends or people that I knew that were doing great stuff, whether they were a doctor, or they had their own business. It was basically to celebrate people in my locality that were doing amazing things and promoting local role models.
So, with Black Lives Matter, there was #blackouttuesday, and I thought to myself, “okay cool, now everybody has posted their black square, but what happens next?” We still need to get more money within the Black community. I’ve always believed that it’s good to stand against something, but it is even better to stand for something. Right now, everybody is saying that they are anti-racist, but I don’t need you to just be anti-racist, I need you to be pro-Black. I think that that is the conversation that we are not having enough. We should talk about the good things that Black people are doing, talk about Black history, talk about Black legacy and normalise building Black wealth.
If I look back at the way I was raised, I grew up in a very pro-Black and pan-African family where it was so easy to hear about all these people that I felt were never spoken about, especially within the South African Black community. I always felt like I wish we could speak more about the pro-Black stuff, and not just anti-white. I also want you to celebrate my history, because I think it short circuits the power, the excellence, the wisdom and the intelligence of Black people if we always start telling our history by saying “and Apartheid, and colonisation, and slavery.” We were people way before that. We had a legacy and so much wealth and wisdom - look at the university in Timbuktu, look at Egypt and look at the Ethiopian kingdom. If you look at so many different places, all across Africa, they were thriving way before colonisation. There is so much Black pride there, and I think our children need to know that.
So, to come back to #BuyBlackTuesday, it was about encouraging people to talk about the positive stuff that we are doing. We are not just victims and we need to celebrate the good stuff. Celebrate our intellect. Celebrate our power to thrive, think out of the box, innovate and create problem-solving ideas. So, that’s where it came from and I really would like to encourage more of my friends and more of the people that I know to go into their own worlds and research for themselves, Black people that are doing amazing things and not just repost and reshare the anti-racist stuff. I really need you to be pro-Black.
You are passionate about bridging the digital divide and empowering people through technological education. One example of this is the Ladies in Tech initiative that you ran in Khayelitsha. Can you tellus about the link between digital literacy and competency and empowerment?
Aviwe: The thing is, at the moment, we are living in a world that is saying, “be digital or go home.” If you look at where most of the investments around the world are going right now, except for pharmaceuticals, it is mostly digital. Especially with COVID-19 and everybody working from home, it has really forced people who would never have thought to use Zoom, use Google Hangouts or use Whatsapp call, to get onto all these online platforms and make use of them. I know sometimes it feels like we over emphasise the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but the reality is that this is the way in which the world is moving.
The thing is, every time there is a shift in terms of industries, whoever is a creator determines what happens in terms of the economy, because they have the majority of the investment. So, they are driving the conversation and they dictate how these technologies and these innovations shape human life. I feel that it is very unfair if we keep making people consumers, but we don’t make them producers. The drive behind pushing for digital literacy and pushing for equipping people with digital skills is that you give people options. So, it’s not a matter of people not taking part in the tech conversation, because they don’t know, but because they have got the tools and they choose not to. For too long, we have spoon-fed people and told them what to do, without giving them options. The more we educate people, the more we give them the power.
Mental health and community-building are at the core of a lot of the work you do. In fact, after doing your Bcom in Information systems at UWC, you ditched the corporate sector so you could focus on these passions. What sparked your activism in this regard, and how did you manage to combine these two passions?
Aviwe: I wanted my passion to be a daily thing and not just something that I do part-time. I think that because of the economy, and those kinds of things, many people don’t see the feasibility of committing to their passions full-time. Whereas, I decided that I would rather do this full-time than do it on a part-time basis.
How do you balance taking care of yourself, while also giving so much of yourself to the amazing, community-building work that you do? How do you take care of your mental health?
Aviwe: Sometimes I fail to do that. But, one thing I have trained myself to do is to reflect a lot. Over the past 6 years, I have tried to make mindfulness a lifestyle and ensure that I am present in every moment. I am conscious of myself, my surroundings and of other people. I try my best to celebrate myself, to come back to myself and to get over stuff quickly.
For me, that has been a big shift in taking care of my mental health. It’s the little things. If I think back to a couple of years ago, I used to be so hard on myself and now I’m able to acknowledge when I make a mistake, apologise and move on. Something that small has made such a big difference in my mental health, because I don’t go to bed at night with regrets. I deal with stuff, I talk through stuff, I forget quickly, and I move on.
Through making authenticity my lifestyle, I find that that is my way of coping. Even when I am stressed and doing too much, it is being able to have an honest conversation with myself and acknowledge that I am not coping. For all of us, our mental health starts with us being authentic with ourselves. Your body knows when it is time to pause.
Can you tell us about a womxn that inspires you?
Aviwe: My gran. My gran is such a fearless womxn. She is a womxn who grew up in a society that functioned within particular norms. But, she just kicked those norms in the butt every time, chose her own path, honoured that path and raised her daughters to be out of the box thinkers. Whenever I talk to my gran, she is always encouraging me to be bold enough to live for my dreams, be bold enough to not just live for what other people say I need to do, make it happen and live without regrets. My gran thinks so differently! She is just so open-minded, and I really appreciate that about her. She is always encouraging me to dream, to read and to question things. My gran is a role model for me.