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‘Dogged determination’: Meet the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History’s Director

CF: Would you say that you have had to work harder to achieve success? In what ways?
SM: Harder than who? If you are talking about men, without a doubt yes. I had never been drafted into military services, so I had no concept of what a battlefield may possibly look like or the size of a brigade vs a regiment. I did not understand any of the military nomenclature, strategy or line of command. I had no idea about how the collections were divided or what made the difference between artillery and small arms.
     I worked in the education department, the curatorial department, the administrative department. I served on every committee at Head Office that was possible. I volunteered to work weekends as a cashier in the museum. I headed the HR department. There was no work too hard or too lowly for me to do.
     I immersed myself in the wonderful treasures the museum held and learnt to love the smell of stores, the isolation of working listing objects and finally after five years, the chatter about military history.

CF: What has been your experience as a woman director? What challenges have you had to face in order to achieve success? Would you say there are certain aspects as a woman that have helped you achieve success?
SM: Perhaps the best way of explaining my experience is to site examples.
     I was walking around the museum grounds one day and this quaint, rather elderly looking lady, asked me if I could point the way to the Director’s office. I said certainly but what is it she needed as I was the Director. She said with a dismissive wave of her hand – ‘Don’t be silly dear.  Imagine thinking you’re the Director.’ So, I walked her to my office went into it and waited for the Receptionist to show her in.
     This typical idea that only men can possibly deal with the subject of the military has been a common theme throughout my career. I remember attending a Trust meeting in the place of the Director. I was ordered to get one of the attendees a drink. I answered politely and explained I was not a barmaid and in fact, I was attending on behalf of the Director. ‘Indeed’, was the retort, ‘women are only good at being secretaries and dealing with the comforts of men. I said get me a drink.’
     This has been my experience as a curator and a Director.  I don’t know how many times I have been asked to take messages for the Director or please tell the person on the phone when the Director will be available. The thought that they might be speaking to the Director never occurs to them simply because I am female.
     The problems were, however, more without the museum than within. In time, the Directorship of Maj. John Keene and the period of the CEOs Adv. Mushwane and Dr Ndlovu lightened the gender bias that had existed. Of course, now with a female CEO, Annabell Lebethe, it is simply not allowed to exist. Added to this, the work of society in general and the government in particular, campaigning against gender discrimination, the situation has definitely improved.
     I hope as a woman I have brought an understanding to staff, colleagues and visitors in general, that whilst a woman has the softness to be a mother and to nurture staff through day-to-day situations that are difficult, she can also have very strict boundaries, very high standards and an expectation that work is not an exceptional thing but part and parcel of what we should all be doing daily. I have never tolerated gossip – I have found it personally hurtful and of no use. I do not tolerate long chats in the corridors. I believe in the truth being told exactly as it is. I also believe fiercely that yesterday’s mistakes and problems belong to yesterday. Today and tomorrow do not need those problems added to them. I hope that when I leave, these will be part of my legacy.

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