Throughout my life, I have been influenced by many amazing women from my grandmothers to my mother to teachers to literary heroes. They all have taken a role in molding me who I am today as an author, a sister, a mother, and a humanitarian.
I dedicated my book, Ruth First Never Backed Down, to one of those special women. My aunt Dr. Brenda Leibowitz was a fierce advocate for equality in higher education in South Africa. She fought tirelessly for social change in an education system that was deeply rooted in the apartheid system. Sadly, Brenda passed away five years ago at the age of 60 from cancer and it was only after her death, that I discovered how lauded she was by her colleagues for pouring her all into fighting a corrupt system.
When I was reading about freedom fighters in South Africa, I came across an article that talked about Ruth First. I had heard her name mentioned a few times before and had seen the movie A World Apart as a kid, based on Ruth’s life story, the screenplay was written as a tribute to Ruth by her daughter Shawn Slovo. But I never knew how profound of an impact Ruth had made in the fight to dismantle Apartheid. Ruth was bold, stubborn, and fearless. In a time, where little space was made for women, she stood among the greats like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Eduardo Mondlane and never backed down.
As a child, it was some of these same qualities I admired in my aunt Brenda. After my family immigrated to America, I only saw Brenda once a year on visits back to South Africa. But each time I savored our talks about her students, how unfair the segregated education system was toward Blacks and how hard she and her colleagues were working toward change.
I never got to talk to Brenda about Ruth First, because I started writing the book the year after she passed away, but I’m sure we would have had a lot to discuss. I imagine we would have spoken about the power of using your voice to make the public aware of the suffering of others. Ruth First never stopped exposing the truth through her journalism, even paying the ultimate price of being thrown into solitary confinement by the South African government for speaking up and in the end, they took her life for the very same reason.
I think one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from Brenda and from Ruth is that everyone can make a difference. No amount of involvement is too small to enact change.