Being selected as the Inaugural Obama Leader in Africa in 2018 and now ranked among the 100 Most Influential Young Africans, Melene Rossouw talks to Nicolene de Wee about how she went from growing up in a poor neighbourhood to become a lawyer, activist and the cofounder of the Women Lead Movement. But she’s not all about work — she loves jazz, R&B and hip-hop
You went from backyard dweller to a successful lawyer and women’s rights activist. What motivated you to pursue a career in law?
I grew up in a single-parent household, with my mother being the head of our house. She was and remains my role model. She is courageous, with a generous spirit. My mother believes in the power of education, and she provided a safe space for both my sister and me to develop within our modest living conditions.
The community I grew up in [Bellville South, Cape Town] was and still is, plagued by high unemployment, low levels of education, poverty and violence. Being exposed to that does influence you in some way.
I knew that I did not want to live a life consumed with so much suffering and despair. I’ve always been an ambitious person and had a fierce drive and determination to master everything I set my sights on.
Some of the positions I’ve held were attorney, legal researcher, national cabinet committee secretary and special ministerial adviser.
Your accolades include being selected as the Inaugural Obama Leader Africa 2018, Mandela Washington Fellowship 2019, and in November last year you ranked among the 100 Most Influential Young Africans. What drives you?
First, transformation, because when you look at some of our country and the continent’s problems, it motivates you to effect meaningful change. Second, I believe in a prosperous and peaceful continent. I see things for what they are now, but also for what they can be in future.
Therefore, our job is to find solutions and actively drive those solutions to fix some of the issues we face, such as poverty, poor education, violence and conflict, gender inequality, youth unemployment, corruption, poor democratic governance, and lack of economic growth. Last, I believe that the quality of our lives begins and ends with education. We must fix our education system and ensure that all our people receive a quality education.
What is the objective of the Women Lead Movement, of which you are the founder?
It was formed with two objectives: promoting a gender-equal society and promoting an active and participatory citizenry. This is a serious challenge with wide-ranging consequences on an individual, family, community and societal level. My organisation has developed more than 20 empowerment programmes for women, including a Women Economic Empowerment programme to develop, support and grow small and medium-sized female-owned businesses.
Our second objective is equally important as this focuses on all citizens and the role they play in shaping the country’s democracy. Under this programme, we educate communities on the Bill of Rights but also their responsibilities. We educate communities on the fundamental pillars of democracy and the roles and responsibilities of the three spheres of government.
Your movement also aims to teach boys and young men about the rights of women. What is your view on gender-based violence in South Africa?
I don’t believe that we have done enough. The primary root cause of GBV is patriarchy. I further believe that GBV is a symptom of a much larger problem called gender inequality and, until we fix that oppressive system, GBV will always exist.
Though it’s vitally important to ensure that victims and or survivors of abuse receive post-abuse treatment and services, the one thing we are missing is a more significant focus on preventative work.
The perpetrators of GBV and femicide are acting with impunity … in many cases the police are failing victims. I believe the government does not have the political will to effect meaningful change. Currently, we need R8-billion over five years to fund the implementation of the new Gender-based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan. Talking about GBV in the media is not an indication of the government’s commitment to eradicating the problem.
At the age of eight, you attended your first national athletic event in Pretoria where you ran barefoot. What influence did sports have on your personal development?
I often refer to those years as some of the best years of my life. The influence that sports had on my life was immeasurable. My coach drilled me hard. I liked that because he treated me exactly the same as the boys I was training with at the time. Sports taught me discipline, courage and commitment, and it gave me a taste of victory. When I excelled in athletics, I excelled in other sports codes too, and I became one of the top academic achievers in school. It really gave me the confidence to go for gold in all my endeavours.
What do you like and dislike about South Africa? What would you change?
We can all agree that our democracy has not been everything that we expected it to be. To a large extent, it is starting to eerily resemble countries where democracy was traded for corruption, poor governance and human rights abuses. There are a few things I would change. First, the lack of social cohesion, respect and tolerance among different races and cultures. The collapse of government [local, provincial and national] and state-owned entities due to poor governance, corruption and incompetence is definitely another issue on my list. I personally do not believe that the majority party sitting at the helm of the executive should be the majority party in parliament.
If we really want to see effective checks and balances between the executive, legislature and the judiciary, we must start looking at how we can transform the trias politica to make it more transparent and accountable.
Third, our economic growth has been practically zero over the past decade. We must create decent and sustainable jobs to reduce social grants. Last, South Africans have lost respect for the rule of law and trust in the judicial systems and chapter nine institutions. In my view, a lawless country is doomed.
Do you have any hobbies in light of your busy schedule?
Due to my work’s nature, I research topics every day, so I am always reading. I am not really into romance novels and fiction as I enjoy serious issues like politics, economics and autobiographies of former presidents or activists. As much as I try to exercise, and I do, I would much rather watch documentaries about real-life events and movies. When it comes to music — seriously, I believe that I was a DJ in my previous life. I love music. I don’t ascribe to any particular genre, but if I were forced to choose, it would be jazz, R&B and hip-hop, specifically from the 70s, 80s and 90s.