2012 Oak Fellow: Zandile Nhlengetwa

“Standing in front of these young people at Colby brought a paradigm shift for me because I was coming from a country where they called me ‘maid’ when they see an ethnic woman. ”

Principal of Ulusda School in KwaZulu-Natal

In the fall of 2012, the Oak Institute welcomed Zandile Nhlengetwa of South Africa to campus as the 2012 Oak fellow. Ms. Nhlengetwa is the principal of Ulusda School in KwaZulu-Natal, a place of learning for young people, as well as a community center that organizes adults around issues such as gender inequity, sexual abuse, and violence. In a community marked not only by poverty but patriarchy and violence, Ms. Nhlengetwa works tirelessly to persuade families to allow their daughters to attend classes, and to encourage their sons to study rather than join local gangs or militia. As a dedicated human rights activist and a survivor of the political violence that affected her home province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zandile Nhlengetwa is known in her community for her ability to bring calm and stability to potentially volatile situations. Facing significant personal risk, Ms. Nhlengetwa has received numerous threats, and local police have reported, not always sympathetically, these come from individuals who believe she has “interfered with people’s customs and culture.” As recently as March of this year, Ulusda School’s security guard was shot in what is suspected to have been an attempt on Ms. Nhlengetwa’s life.

Before she began her work at Ulusda School, Ms. Nhlengetwa founded and directed an organization, the Harambe Women’s Forum, made up of widows, like herself, whose husbands have died during bloody conflict in KwaZula-Natal. After the loss of family members to violent incidents, Nhlengetwa has reached out to young people to help them break the cycle of violence through education. The group has promoted reconciliation between families and neighbors, and reached out especially to young men and older boys at risk of joining the cycle of violence.

In addition to her work on behalf of young people in South Africa, she was part of the team that spent time in Freetown sharing South African experiences to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone. After participating in South Africa’s TRC (1995-97), she agreed to share her experiences in Sierra Leone, working with children who were asked to testify about their service as soldiers in that country’s long civil war.

Although a primary school teacher, having to teach college students during the fellowship made her anxious, she said. It was also partly because, “I never taught white children.”

To overcome her anxiety, Nhlengetwa came up with a creative solution: dancing. “It has been [an] important part of our upbringing; every South African would do it. Music—it has some sort of therapy when you’re anxious, it de-stresses you,” she explained. “Doing that, it would calm me down and [make me] gain my confidence. And when they joined in, it connected us. So it was a way of connecting with the students, with my class.” Since the rst day, students have paid her a high level of respect and showed a great hunger to learn from her experiences. “Standing in front of these young people at Colby brought a paradigm shift for me because I was coming from a country where they called me ‘maid’ when they see an ethnic woman,” she said. But at Colby, she said, they looked at her and saw a human being.