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Phumla ngoxolo, daughter of the universe

In remembrance of the courageous daughter of the soil, Dr Vuyokazi Felicity Mahlati, Unisa, in partnership with South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID), held a moving memorial service on 19 October 2020, filled with emotions of joy, sadness, laughter and an afterglow of smiles. It was evident that Dr V, as she was affectionately known, touched many lives in South Africa (SA), continentally and globally, as overwhelming tributes and testimonies were delivered by her family, friends and global dignitaries from all walks of life.

Among her many roles, she previously served as the president of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa (IWFSA) and the chairperson of the South African Post Office (SAPO). At the time of her passing on 12 October, she was serving as the chairperson of the SAWID Development Commission and president of the African Farmers Association of South Africa (AFASA). Dr V was also serving her second term as a National Planning Commissioner in the Presidency since 2010 and was to assume her presidency position for the Global Chapter of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) at the end of October 2020.

Prof Mandla Makhanya, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Unisa

In his welcome address, Prof Mandla Makhanya, Unisa’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, said: "We are celebrating a woman of substance and a life of substance. While Dr Mahlati’s life spanned a brief 55 years, she has left a far greater example and legacy than the overwhelming majority of us will do in our lifetimes. And, in a world that is so mired down in misery, suffering, and endless ugliness and travail, legacies such as Vuyo’s are lights in the darkness - cherished by us all."

The programme director, Criselda Kananda, said that Dr V taught them to live their truth even when it is not popular, to express love at any given moment, and told how she was very generous with sharing her wisdom. While SAWID virtually shared messages of comfort from their different provinces, its Board of Trustees Chair, Thoko Mpumlwana, shared how Dr V became part of SAWID and appreciated that she was a book for all to read and learn from. She further appreciated that she embraced education and knowledge, including the treasure of indigenous knowledge.

Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the United Nations (UN) Women Executive Director, shared a virtual tribute and reflected on how Dr V assisted her when she was the Deputy President of South Africa. She spoke on how she advocated for the rights of people with disabilities, women, farmers, and her passion for employment creation and

Thoko Mpumlwana, Chair: SAWID Board of Trustees

economic empowerment for rural communities. "You will be missed, Vuyo; you have been a cherished leader - you worked with people from all walks of life but always went back to the poorest of the poor; …you have run your race fast as if you knew that it was going to be short," she concluded.

Organisations that delivered messages of comfort included the Kelloggs Foundation, IWF (globally), African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA), Siyaya Media Network and the Unisa Women’s Forum (UWF). The Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Hon Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, as well as the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Hon Thoko Didiza, also paid tribute to the global icon virtually.

The sermon was delivered by Prof Barney Pityana, former Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Unisa, and focused on the bible scripture, Psalm 37, to comfort mourners. Pityana described Dr V as a trusted confidant and an inspirational comrade in fighting the cause of women. Globally recognised performance poet, Unisa’s Natalia Molebatsi, virtually recited a moving poem, while Jessica Mbangeni, a well-known South African praise poet 'imbongi' shook mourners with her praise song.

Jessica Mbangeni, South African praise poet 'imbongi'

Among other words used, Dr V was described as a trailblazer, visionary strategist, brave, a feminist of note, a champion for social justice and women’s rights, a global advocate and one who never shied away from talking about the thorny issue of land. To her family, she was also a mother, wife, daughter and sister. Her daughter, Lilitha Mahlati, the managing director of Ivili Loboya, a company founded by Dr V, remembered her as a boss, an advisor, a talent and someone who always reminded her not to forget her place in the boardroom. Her son, Siseko Mahlati, said that his mother was never excited about titles but the changes she could make with those titles.

In her vote of thanks and closing remarks, activist scholar and public intellectual, Lebohang Pheko, said Dr V was above average without making others feel below average. Like Dr V, Pheko urged mourners to lift other people up.

Phumla ngoxolo, daughter of the universe.

Family members of the late Dr Vuyokazi Felicity Mahlati at the memorial service hosted by Unisa

* By Nancy Legodi, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/10/22