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

Manche Masemola sculpture Westminster Abbey London

CF: What woman in history (or featured in your Museum collection) inspires you? Could you tell us a bit more about them and the object in the museum’s collection?
SM: In South African history, the women I admire the most are those who left their traditional roles as housewives and mothers and stepped into factory work in jobs usually held by men during World War 2 (1939 – 1945). Men joined the armed forces and left gaps in businesses. This, with the concurrent change in the South African economy from an agricultural export country to an industrialised society, opened up employment in markets previously barred to women. I admire those women’s ability to break the moulds in which they had been raised and their ability to support the country in a time when the country most needed them. Imagine adapting to the smell of cordite in a bomb factory from the smells of scones in a kitchen? Yet they did it so successfully.
     If I were to choose a woman in history who I admire it would be Manche Masemola (1904 – 1919) from Marishane. She was a 15-year-old Pedi girl who attended lessons for baptism into the Church of the Province of South Africa. Her parents refused to accept this decision of hers to move away from their traditional cultural and religious roots and took her to a sangoma. She was beaten and stripped of all her clothes so that she could not attend church services. After refusing to change her mind she was taken to a wood and beaten to death.
     A sculpture of her stands above the west entrance of Westminster Abbey in London alongside Martin Luther King and another eight martyrs and Saints from around the world. Imagine having a belief strong enough at the age of 15 years to allow you to disobey and defy your parents and your own community? What amazing courage and strength of belief she had.

CF: What woman (either in your personal life, or a hero, mentor, etc.) inspires you, and why?
SM: My heroine has to be Thuli Madonsela. She is inspirational because she refused to water down the truth or explain away fraudulent crimes despite having the majority of a ruling government stand against her. Her decorum and complete dignity in the face of a storm of criticism and threats to her life, remain enviable qualities to me. She is professional and stays with the truth regardless of all opposition.

CF: Do you think that this quote by Michelle Obama relates to your personal journey? ‘You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.’ In what ways?
SM: I have two favourite sayings that I repeat to myself when I am faced with overwhelming challenges. One is an old Buddhist chant for the gift of compassion – ‘The jewel is in the lotus’, ‘Óm mane pad me om’. This points out our need to know that the most beautiful blossom begins in a muddy pond as a root in sludge.
     The second is this – Experience is born of failure. Success is born of experience.
     Time is a great teacher. Silence is a friend we need to cultivate. I have had some turbulent experiences during my sojourn in the museum, but the gift those circumstances have given me, even where my very livelihood has been threatened, have been of incredible value. I have learnt that fear is not worth wasting time on. If you have started a fight, then you must give your all to win the fight as long as it is based in truth and transparency.
     In her book, Becoming, Michelle Obama emphasises this point. The results of her beliefs are – a highly respected lady, with strong principles, discipline and adaptability for whom most of the world can only have admiration.

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