Design Diva: Zahira Asmal

2012-07-21 11:02

Driving the conversation around the impact of the 2010 Fifa World Cup on our cities took steely deter-mination – something she learned from her more famous uncle.

Zahira Asmal, niece of the late human rights activist Kader Asmal, has adopted his motto: ‘When you believe in something, you have stick to it and never be intimidated by anything.’

She is the founder and managing director of Designing South Africa, a cutting-edge research project that strives to share South African culture, cuisine and lifestyle with the rest of the world.

Her book, Reflections & Opportunities: Design, Cities and the World Cup (R300, Designing South Africa) is the culmination of a two-year project that engaged people in a critical debate around the topic of mega-events, such as the Fifa World Cup, and their impact on the cities that host them.

What Zahira says:
‘I take perseverance, faith, accountability and integrity from my uncle Kader.’

What was your greatest challenge with this project?
I wanted to take design to another level. Artists tend to keep their craft to themselves as an elite thing.

It shouldn’t be, because government has finances for such projects. I wanted to see how these two parties could be brought together.

What’s the maddest business decision you’ve ever made?

Starting this project! Initially I funded it with personal savings, because government funding proved to be difficult to secure.

People kept asking me for my business plan.

I said ‘we can’t wait for a business plan, we just have to make it happen.’ I took a leap of faith and put in all my savings.

Have you ever come across sexism in the workplace?
Yes, in a major way! It’s a huge problem, but my strategy is to pretend I haven’t noticed it.

I’ve experienced sexism on many levels, such as people telling me, ‘for a woman you’re doing well’ and men assuming that when you need something from them, you’re asking for something else.

I really hope men in the workplace can be more respectful towards women.

What personal qualities do you think have helped you become successful?
Honesty, perseverance and integrity. I have never compromised on any of these values.

What’s your philosophy towards design?
Design, in its essence, is supposed to make life better for people.

Designers need to remind themselves about this every time they create something.

Who are your role models?
I respect the architects and designers I came across while studying and researching for my book. I’m really moved by their generosity. They work tirelessly for South Africa.

I dedicated the book to my Asmal family and to the designers of South Africa.

Off duty
Favourite place you’ve travelled to?
I absolutely love road trips in South Africa – this place is beautiful.

Which book is on your bedside?
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

Craziest thing you’ve ever done?
There are too many to mention … The one that sticks out the most is the three-month trip I did from Athens to Amsterdam on my own. It was amazing!

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