“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. Our human compassion binds us to the other – not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

These words spoken by Nelson Mandela will forever be etched in his granddaughter Ndileka’s memory. They are the reason she wakes up every morning with a mission to find and uplift the most vulnerable in society – particularly girls.

Ndileka, the first of Madiba’s grandchildren, is the founder and CEO of the Thembekile Mandela Foundation which promotes youth development, education and community health welfare.

One of the foundation’s flagship projects is the ‘Pride of the Rural Girl” initiative, which ensures access to safe and hygienic sanitary products, particularly for poor girls. These children at times have to use toilet paper, old socks and crumpled newspaper because they cannot afford sanitary towels. 

She named the foundation in honour of her later father Thembekile.

“It is because of my grandfather’s words and mostly his actions combined with the love and teachings of my grandmother [Evelyn Nomathamsanqa Mandela] that I decided the time had come to give back to my community, country, my continent in a useful and meaningful way. I want to continue their legacy,”
Ndileka said during an interview at the foundation’s offices in Johannesburg.

She spoke of the foundation’s work, the impact her grandparents had on her life, and relevance of a protest march to Pretoria by the 20 000 women against racial exclusion and marginalisation by the apartheid system.

Since its launch two years ago, the foundation has provided over 10,000 girls with sanitary wear – all of them with a year’s supply.

Ndileka says the true extent of the challenge hit her when in August 2014 the foundation visited one of its beneficiaries, Khamane High School.

“Nothing prepared me for the joy I saw on those girls’ faces when we gave them their packs of sanitary towels. For many, their very first pack of sanitary towels ever. This was something I had always taken for granted. All we “have to worry about” is which brand we want. I must tell you, the experience humbled me to my core,” she said.

Ndileka noted though that the current numbers of beneficiaries were a drop in the ocean as the challenge affected up to three million girls each year in southern Africa alone.

“This cannot happen, not on our watch,” Ndileka says, whilst paying tribute to the private entities, public institutions and individuals who support the initiative through donations.

The “Pride of the Rural Girl” initiative was informed by a research done by the Open Society Initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA), indicating that each rural girl learner loses up to 50 days of schooling a year during their menstrual period due to lack of resources.

“Fifty days may seem little to some, but if one adds up these days over a five year period, by the time each of these girls sits for her senior year exam, she will have missed a whole year of schooling.

There is a stigma attached to bleeding through your uniform when a girl does not have proper sanitary wear,” Ndileka said, adding that this was perpetuated by lack of guidance and clean bathrooms for the girls to use.

She explained that the initiative has not only brought to the fore issues of hygiene and understanding how the body functions, but it helped them focus on their education.

“It is through feeling understood and validated that they have grown in confidence to look into the future and dream of bettering their lives. As a foundation we also ensure a very important element of sustainability in our health and education programmes,” Ndileka said.

It is clear that Ndileka feels a strong connection to her grandmother and that the elder’s caring and compassionate spirit rubbed off on her.

“A lot of people do not know anything about the formidable and majestic woman that brought me up. The sum total of who I am and have become comes from God through her. This was a woman who owned a general dealer shop back in 1972 in a very conservative village town called Cofimvaba. This was back in the day when women were relegated to professions like teaching and nursing.

She resigned from her chosen career; of being a community nurse to run this shop on a full time basis,” she says fondly, remembering the days gone by spent with this self-taught businesswoman who helped her find independence.

“In her house there was no time for idleness. When my friends came to visit she used to chase them away as she believed that an idle mind is the breeding ground for gossip. You know one of those matriarchs. I remember during one school vacation when one of my friends came to spend the holidays with me. She made us, her included to clean windows for the whole house. Suffice to say my friend never visited again.”

She paid tribute to the women who participated in the 1956 Women’s March, saying it was incumbent upon the current generation to ensure that their sacrifice, bravery and selflessness was not in vain.

“We all have to play our part to protect the gains of freedom. For our part as Thembekile Mandela Foundation we are particularly passionate about women emancipation. We believe that in order to speak about women emancipation it is important to ensure that we do not forget about our girls. “

She said that for society to have strong formidable women and for poverty to end, it was important that work started early in children’s lives.

“We have a great opportunity in the various fields we are in to make a great difference in the lives of our young girls and ensure we groom a new set of formidable women in Africa; who can participate meaningfully in the economy,” she concluded.

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