Three years after the 1948 enactment of Apartheid in South Africa, a beautiful girl with big diamond blue eyes was born in the “Diamond City” of Kimberly. Fast forward to now. Professor Sheila Onkaetse Mmusi (60), who has lived her life as a black woman in the racially segregated South Africa still has the diamond blue eyes; they sparkle even more complimented by her long, neat dreadlocks, elegant sense of style and flawless skin. I’ve travelled for more than 8 hours from Mpumalanga to Limpopo to meet her, and as we exchange our greetings and engage in deep conversations about our history while driving to her office, I see in her face the strength of the 20 000 women who marched to the Pretoria’s Union Building on 9 August 1956 to protest against the pass laws.
The Professor currently heads the department of Media and Communications Studies at the University of Limpopo, in the far Northern region of South Africa. This is no ordinary feat, considering South African history. According to the South African Press Association (SAPA), South Africa produces only 26 PHD graduates per million annually of its 43 million people; most of them are white men in their 30’s. This makes Professor Mmusi a rare gem indeed. “It’s difficult to come across South African blacks who have high qualifications,” said the Professor.
Professor Mmusi has faced tremendous obstacles on her journey from the Diamond City to the halls of the University of Limpopo. As a child, she wanted to be a doctor; in 1974 she was awarded a scholarship to study medicine at the University of the North. It was not a supportive environment for a young black woman. An Afrikaner lecturer in her first year told her that half of the black students would drop out within months. After two years she quit her medical studies and completed both a BA degree and a Secondary Teacher’s Diploma.
In 1984 she was awarded a scholarship for post-graduate work at to the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, Illinois in America. She spent the next 8 years in America studying, raising her two daughters; Keamogetswe and Lerato, as a single parent and juggling three jobs. She was a teacher’s assistant, taught Afrikaans and Setswana at various universities, was a proofreader and editor, and was the president of the African Student Association. “I really was living the concept that the sky is the limit, anything I set my head on was done,” said Professor Mmusi. “Even the system was such that you could be whatever you wanted to be and my children lived just like normal American children. I had support from Professors and my mentor, Professor Eyamba Bogamba.” In May 1992 she was awarded a PhD in Linguistics.
It was in America that she realized how much she had been scarred by gender stereotyping. This victimization lit a fire within her. “When you talk of women oppressing women I can attest to that in families. I have gone through what I would call emotional abuse…I have seen it even with my step father being abusive towards my mother.” It made her want to help other women to avoid that fate, and became one of the driving passions in her life.
Upon her return to South Africa, in 1995 Prof. Mmusi headed the University of Limpopo’s department of Translations and Linguistics and then spearheaded the creation of a department of Media and Literary studies. After she was appointed her immediate challenge was dealing with a racist lecturer who did not want to attend staff meetings. He later confessed that “I am not used to reporting to a woman, to be frank with you; the black woman I know and I have experience with is my maid,” before he asked for a transfer to an English department within the university.
As her passion for media developed, she realized that community radio was a potential tool to create positive change for women. She started running workshops for the province and UNESCO and introduced a course in community radio and management to professionalize the sector. She conducts Gender and Media Literacy workshops for community radio stations that teach station managers and program managers about human rights, women’s issues, and gender policy. Despite her multiple degrees, her decades of experience as a professor and a department administrator, Professor Mmusi has continued to experience roadblocks in her professional life. She was nominated by many opposition parties as a board member of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) but was not selected. She has applied for and been rejected from several governmental positions, some of which went to much less qualified individuals. Her struggle to be taken seriously in a world of institutionalized racism and sexism is constant. “As a woman, you are like a howler in a meeting,” she observed. Yet she hasn’t lost faith. “I’ve always believed that my work talks for me, my CV talks for me, and all my experiences talk for me.”
In the meantime, she is achieving her vision to provide the best media training in Limpopo. Her students have been well received by prospective employers and many of them are now working as station managers at the national broadcasters. To her students she’s not just a professor but a friend, a mother, a sister, a woman and a teacher. “I have an open door policy,” added the Professor.
As we waved goodbye after she dropped me off at the taxi stand, I smiled and thanked her for such a wonderful time. “I always know that beyond a rainbow there is something and it’s my faith,” she said. “That’s how I have lived my life.”
I do see all the possibilities. She has crushed all my fears of ever becoming a professor and I now know that when I do become one, I will no longer be seen as a howler. She has paved a way for me and many women who will come after her.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Profiles