I had the opportunity to meet Sebenzile Matsebula here in Ottawa during the Women’s Worlds Conference which took place from July 3-7 2011 at the University of Ottawa.
Matsebula is an internationally recognized disability rights activist. She worked as the Director of the Office on the Status of Disabled People (OSDP) in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki for 8 years. She is currently the Executive Director of Motswako Office Solutions, which is recognized by the South African Government as a Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) contributer. In 2009, South African President Jacob Zuma appointed Matsebula to the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Advisory Council, which is mandated to advise the government on Black Economic Empowerment in order to remedy the economic legacy of Apartheid. She is the mother of two grown sons.
Sebenzile Matsebula was born in Barberton, in the Eastern Transvaal, South Africa. In 1957, at the age of ten months, she contracted polio. She ended up in the hospital with a very high fever. The illness resulted in both her lower limbs becoming paralysed, therefore Matsebula must use a wheelchair. Matsebula studied at the University of Botswana and Swaziland where she obtained a B. Sc. Biology, Statistics and Environmental Science. She has furthered her studies in the field of Biometrics at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon in Canada.
According to Matsebula she first became involved in the disability rights movement while she was still in Swaziland:
I remember having many interactions with [William Rowland], Friday Mavuso, Maria Rantho – all those people that came out to Swaziland to create an awareness of this new shift in thinking. We had come from a culture of a welfare state, where disabled people were looked after and cared for by charities, by the good Samaritans. Then there was this movement, saying, in effect, “No, that actually isn’t the right way…disabled people have a responsibility to effect changes in their own lives.” That was my first exposure, which I must say was a wonderful exposure. I was involved with the sector from 1986 as a researcher – because I was trained in the sciences – but it wasn’t until 1988-89 that I got involved with the movement as a movement of people with disabilities. And I have been involved ever since, with an increasing awareness and an increasing understanding of what disability rights are all about.
In a 2004 interview with Disability World, Matsebula described some of the achievements of the Office on the Status of Disabled People (OSDP) :
Well, you could write a book about that; but let me pick up some highlights. There are several aspects: At government level one of our key successes has been the training in departments. When our new democracy started, a lot of posts were created to ensure the mainstreaming concept, and people were deployed into government departments to facilitate this mainstreaming. Those people would have had experience in social welfare, as teachers, and whatever, but they did not have experience or an understanding of disability. We then trained those people so that, as they discharged their duties, they had a clear understanding of disability as a concept, as a principle, and as a way of living.
That has been a very successful project because, besides creating awareness and making people do their work effectively, it has enabled us to gain allies in government. Because of their strong understanding of disability, these people have become passionate about their work and go out of their way to promote disability issues. So we now have what we call “focal persons”, but they’re actually allies that serve as our ears and eyes and inform us of what is going on and of any problems. If we need an entry point into a department, we know there is somebody who will work with us meaningfully.
The following is a statement Matsebula made at the Danish Civil Society Conference in 2006:
I contracted polio at ten months of age in the Eastern part of South African where I was born. I then lived through an era of disempowerment as a black African, as a female and as a disabled person. Therefore I can relate to all forms of discrimination, marginalisation and disempowerment in a real sense.
Yet inspite of rather difficult social circumstances my experience in life as a adult was of a more positive one resulting from now living in a new political dispensation that promotes the rights of marginalised sectors of the society, the equalisation of opportunities and self representation particularly in decision making processes.
This experience was brought about in my work in my 8 years of working in the highest office of South Africa, in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki as head of the disability unit. The government of South Africa and its political principals has unconditional political commitment to the respect of rights of all vulnerable groups through the constitution and the bill of rights. This high level political commitment subsequently enabled me and my compatriots to play a meaningful in the development of the country at all spheres of governance. It is commitment that is substantiated by an annual allocation of government resources.
As a result of this equality and equity of local participation, South Africa subsequently has some of the best policies, best practices and programs that govern vulnerable groups.
However in my work on the African continent I have observed real hardships, which are faced by vulnerable groups in African societies as a result of the absence of meaningful policies and a lack of political commitment to the alleviation of tragic social problems.
This is also evident in that the voices of the poor are continuously marginalised in PRO-POOR development processes, which has unfortunately been perpetuated by external influences. From my experience I have a total conviction that sustainable development and the real and true African ownership of processes will be realised only through meaningful and recognised public participation and self representation by all marginalised sectors of our societies.
Profile of Sebenzile Matsebula available online
Interview (2004) with Disability World available online
Integrating disability within government: the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons by Sebenzile Matsebula, Marguerite Schneider and Brian Watermeyer, available online in Disabilty and Social Change: A South African Agenda by HRSC Press