Against the odds: A woman’s determination to change the world

2009-08-07 00:00

WHEN the Deputy Minister for Public Works Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu was in Grade 4 she made a commitment to change the world. And being partially sighted­,­ ironically­, became her inspiration to do just that.

Speaking to BuaNews at her newly- renovated­ offices in Pretoria, Bogopane-Zulu said it’s no coincidence that she is a deputy minister today.

“From the day I realised that I was different, I made a commitment to become ‘somebody’. I knew that I would become deputy minister [one day]. I worked hard to make sure that I would get there and it came sooner than I thought,” she said.

Being partially sighted, she wanted to be in a position where she could give a voice to people with disabilities.

The deputy minister describes her life as “complicated”. But one gets the feeling that she has a plan not to allow it to be so.

The 38-year-old mother of three daughters aged 19, 13 and five, explained that on a daily basis she has to make a choice between waking up early to make her children’s lunch or waking up early to attend a breakfast meeting.

“It’s not easy. You have to make choices. I have chosen to have balance in my life. Otherwise it [life] becomes all about work.”

Bogopane-Zulu makes a point of ensuring that her diary is not filled with late evening meetings or events, to ensure that she is home most nights.

“I try to have at least three days a week where I finish work at 6 pm so that I can spend time with my children and help them with their homework and participate in their activities.”

She said the “wife part” of her life is taken care of because she works with her husband­.

The deputy minister hired her husband as her guide, although her staff and protectors had to be convinced that she needed an extra member to help her.

She said that it was difficult justifing why she needed to hire her husband, but she is unapologetic about doing so.

“They didn’t understand that blindness involves having to touch people to get around. I was more comfortable with him doing this.”

When she attends meetings Bogopane- Zulu­ doesn’t want people to worry­ about her; about how to get her to her seat or to get her tea during breaks.

“I love being me and I don’t want people to take care of me. I want people to feel comfortable around me.

“I don’t want another minister to make tea for me. The next thing is that I will be forced to be nice to that person because­ he or she is helping me,” laughs Bogopane- Zulu.

“When it’s lunch time, my husband brings me tea and makes sure that I’m sorted out,” she said.

It has not always been an easy task sensitising­ people to her needs since arriving­ at her post.

“One arrives in an environment where policies­ don’t always cater for one’s needs. As the deputy minister I have to ask how the policies that govern the executive accommodate­ me.”

This is a question perhaps asked by many people with disabilities when they enter the workplace.

However, the deputy minister ensured that she is allowed to use specialised technology­ to help her read documents.

At first, this was not always welcome at high-level, confidential meetings, but this has changed.

Among the equipment brought in for her to perform her duties include voice recognition­ software, a scanner that converts­ documents into large print on her computer and a Braille printer and keyboard.

“All my confidential documents are in Braille, which means that I can read them anywhere I choose as most people cannot read Braille,” she says laughing.

When asked if the government is taking women­’s­ issues seriously, Bogopane-Zulu says it’s not a question that needs asking anymore­.

“It’s something that is being done. It’s non-negotiable­. South Africa is expected to reach the 50% women representation mark. We are the majority.”

Bogopane-Zulu challenges women to make use of the opportunities that have been made available by the government to improve­ themselves.

“This is the time. It doesn’t get any better than this. We need to utilise our position to change the lives of women. We need to do it for our sisters out there.”

So, what is next for this fiercely independent­, strong woman?

“I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I would not mind being the first disabled president.

“This is South Africa­ and anything can happen in this country­.” — Bua News.

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