An extraordinary life

Len Kalane

Len Kalane

This is the story of Deborah Machake Mabiletsa.

It is not an ordinary lifetime story. It is a portrait of a remarkable woman known for her resilience, sensitivity and an amazingly seeking soul.

It is a story of a woman who stood up against the turbulence of apartheid; a towering woman and arguably one of the progenitors of women representation in the corporate boardrooms of apartheid South Africa.

Mabiletsa died on Saturday at the age of 79 after a long battle with leukemia.

The genesis of her story has its roots in Alexandra township. Alexandra, a mighty story in its own right; the scene of black resistance and place of numerous accounts of apartheid's wrath told with chilling poignancy.

The woman fondly referred to as Debs was all part of it. And there weren't many of her ilk those days.

She emerged from the humble surroundings of the pain and the joy of dusty Alexandra, a washer-woman's daughter, who went on to become one of South Africa's best known champions of the underprivileged.

Mabiletsa, once the Urban Foundation's consultant adviser in community participation, was the first black woman to sit on the board of directors of the foundation.

The pint-sized, lacking in conceit woman with a loud bellowing voice, was also vice-chairman of the Transvaal region of the foundation. The Urban Foundation was started after the 1976 upheavals to improve the quality of life of urban communities.

Mabiletsa qualified as a teacher at Adam's College in Natal and taught at Alexandra High School before studying social science at Witwatersrand University, a rare experience for black people in those days.

She was appointed the first black director of Alexandra's eNtokozweni Family Welfare Centre for 12 years. It was through her untiring efforts that a foundation in Holland sent money for building the big eNtokozweni centre in Moletsane, Soweto.

When she left eNtokozweni, she became the first black woman to study marriage guidance counselling at Melbourne University in Australia. She then became marriage guidance counsellor for the Soweto Society for Marriage and Family Life.

During International Year of Women in 1975, she was the first black woman from South Africa to be invited to sit in at the UN general assembly in New York. She also became the first chairman of the Black Women's Legal Status Committee, which addressed itself to bettering women's rights.

Her "firsts" carried on and on - she was the first black woman to be runner-up in The Star Woman of the Year competition in 1971.

She was president of the SA Black Women's Federation, which was subsequently banned, and also the first director of the South African Council of Churches women's desk.

She was a founder-member of Women for Peace and a church councillor in the Lutheran Evangelical Church. She also started the Masisizane Education Project in Diepkloof, Soweto, for underprivileged children.

She served on the boards of World Vision and Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre.

Mabiletsa will be buried at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg tomorrow.

Her funeral service will be at the Lutheran Church in White City Jabavu from 9am.