Finding your voice, for the sake of others
From the fight for equality in apartheid South Africa to helping the visually impaired in Bradford
‘Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’
Life can so often be heart wrenchingly unfair as humanity rips lives, families, and communities apart through the lack of value for basic human rights. Often onlookers struggle to know how to respond, leaving injustice unchallenged. So, what compels someone to act? To stand in the gap and fight for the rights of others?
Gwyneth has a fire in her belly for justice and fully comprehends the power of both her voice and actions to fight inequality. From risking her life during the apartheid years in South Africa to teaching the visually impaired youth of Bradford, she has devoted her time and energy to making this world a fairer place. And she’s had fun doing so.
As she talks about her early life, the origins of her core values become clear. “I grew up in a suburb called Rivonia, the same one that Nelson Mandela was hiding in until being arrested. She says, “You’d be walking in the streets on a Saturday and there’d be people pointing guns at you. I didn’t know anything different, that’s what it was like. Although we did have domestic workers, I was always taught to respect all adults. It was clear that Sarah was in charge when my parents were away.”
She continues, “In fact I was more scared of Sarah than my mother, she was far more strict! However, I’d visit other family houses and the women who worked there were treated like dirt, and so I saw inequality from an early age.”
She was taught by her parents to value everyone as equals. “All my life we were told ‘be true unto thyself’ and ‘treat others as thou wouldst be done to you.’ Although these words come from Christ’s teachings, she was never forced into religion. “My mum just believed there was a higher being and that all religions are the same.”
Within the context of the culture of South Africa at that time, she speaks of how her parents helped to liberate her thinking. With energy in her voice and a twinkle in her eye she says, “They were quite radical, liberal South Africans. Every weekend our home was like a big open house and all these young students hung out and discussed things in front of us. No subject was taboo; sex, religion, politics, you name it.” She continues, “We were probably politicised by these young students, as we listened and learned from all those conversations.”
It wasn’t just her home life that shaped her. “All my schooling was segregated, and so I grew up seeing discrimination written into law.” She recalls, “I fought against it any way I could, my view was ‘everyone is equal’ so I was always in trouble for questioning things.”
Another pivot in life came when her brother turned eighteen. He was conscripted into the army and sent to fight against ‘the communist danger’. She recalls with a mixture of incredulity and sadness, “My brother was one of those who would have been shooting domestic workers in townships if they were protesting against the government. A lot of his friends died in the fighting and there were also quite a lot of military suicides. He came back as an alcoholic.” Witnessing the effects of the apartheid on someone she loved compelled her further into action.
After studying fine art at university, she became a primary school teacher and began challenging students on their cultural norms, behind closed doors she was also helping the ‘End Conscription Campaign’, which was risky. “Anyone who was against F. W. Clerk’s government was seen as the enemy. People were being arrested off the streets and disappearing.”
Unless you have lived in an environment like this it’s hard to comprehend, but Gwynneth explains the lasting impact of this time on her life. “To this day I still don’t keep a personal diary because if meeting times or names were found, you’d be putting other people in danger. I also still carry a big bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a change of knickers, because those detained never got any warning, they’d just vanish off the street.” What fueled their dangerous choices? She explains, “We weren’t scared because we knew what we were doing was right.” This in itself is a challenging thought to anyone afraid to stand up for what’s right.
Her political activism eventually led to her fleeing for safety to the UK. “I had to phone my mother every morning so she knew that I was alive. I knew if I got detained I wouldn’t be able to teach again. Quite a few of my friends were in hiding and I was probably next on the list to be interrogated.”
She originally arrived in Nottingham in 1988. “I wasn’t allowed to teach because my African qualifications were not accepted, so my heritage made me seek out new opportunities.” So after working for the Nottinghamshire Royal Society for the Blind for many years she took the opportunity to become the Habilitation Officer with the visually impaired at Bradford Council, and moved to the city in 2011.
Speaking about her work she beams, “Although I worked against the apartheid system in South Africa, it’s the same fight. I’m still fighting for equality. I want to help these young people be proactive to fight for what is rightfully theirs.”
She continues to explain what the fight is actually about. “They’re very capable, independent people who can do so much, yet employers see their disability first and assume they can’t contribute. I encourage them to fight for their rights, but these young people are actually fighting a hierarchy that’s a really hard wall to break down.”
The theme of ‘finding your voice’ returns as this time she talks about the cost involved in doing so. “Teenagers today with Instagram and all the rubbish they have thrown at them, they want to be like their mates. It’s very difficult to be different, so people want to hide their disability.” She continues, “There’s something important about finding your voice in life. You can’t change who you are, you have to stand up and be counted. I know that for some young people I work with it will never happen because they haven’t got to the stage where they own their disability, for other people, they will jump up and run with it.”
It’s a journey she herself has experienced. “I myself have a hidden disability of dyslexia. I’m an African. I’m a white. I’m an African of European descent. I’ve lived in England for too long now, but I’m not English. When I go home to South Africa I don’t fit in there either now. So I’ve had to make a life within the culture I live in.” She speaks warmly of how the people of Bradford have become like an extended family to her. “I feel more comfortable when I am outnumbered by Black and Asian people rather than in white communities, and because many of the families I work with are second generation Asians they feel the same about fitting in as I do. So it’s like we’re in this together somehow and I often get called ‘auntie’ by the families I know.”
Speaking of her future, she says “I’ve learned so much from the people of Bradford about respect, about working together. I know statistically that Bradford is the youngest growing city within the UK, and we all need to really work together to make sure that all the children here have the best life, to do the best they can and fulfill whatever potential they have.”
She concludes, “I suppose, I own who I am. I’m proud of who I am and throughout my life I want to inspire others to be who they are, to ask the difficult questions and not be shy, because otherwise they’re not going to achieve things in life. I’ll always see the best in people and encourage them to see the best in themselves.” These are challenging concepts for us all, no matter what fight we’re in.
Story & photos by Tom Harmer