Teaching feminism on the grounds of tradition

 
 
 

Most people don’t look back on their school days with fondness. But when Thenjiwe Stemela thinks about her time at St Mary’s School, Waverley, she sees the foundations of the life she has today. From being a television presenter to management consultant, Stemela’s journey began with the 35-kilometre drive to school through the eclectic streets of her hometown, Johannesburg.

“It is quite a hard city at first, it’s also a dynamic city,” Stemela says. “I think it’s just a place that embraces people and embraces the spirit of people.” Although Stemela left the city of gold to study theatre in Cape Town, she returned to her roots to pursue a fruitful career. Stemela is a woman of varied skills and interests. She’s always had a zest for life, and was able to express it on the grounds of her old school, participating in everything from drama to dance to netball to debating. Built in 1888, St Mary’s is Johannesburg’s oldest school, currently surrounded by popular attractions such as Melrose Arch and Rosebank Mall. The school has seen generations of girls grow to be independent women under its red roofs. For Stemela, it was the birthplace of her feminism. “I remember my English teachers encouraging us as young women not to ever take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says, “to take the opportunities and use our strength and our voices and our intelligence to make our way through this world.”

While Stemela continues to push towards her ever-bright future, she’ll always know that it began behind a desk in the middle of Johannesburg. “I’ve seen firsthand the way in which a good education opens up the world, beyond what you study,” she says. “I feel lucky and proud.”