Zulaikha Patel is the young activist we were introduced to in 2016 when she created the movement #StopRacismatPretoriaGirlsHigh at the tender age of 13. A few years later, she is still very active in her activism work and was one of the attendees of SONA 2020 (the State of The Nation Address) and last month, she spoke at SLAY Festival Joburg about effecting change in our communities. Since South Africa has been on a national lockdown for the past few weeks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, reports of gender-based-violence have reportedly increased and thus I spoke to the young activist on how she is taking care of her mental health and the advice she would offer to survivors of GBV who may even be in quarantine with their perpetrators.
How do you ensure that you are being felt, heard and understood in your activism work, in your education and in your relationships?
To ensure that I stay heard in my activism, in my education and in my relationships, I make sure that I stay as genuine as possible, very genuine. Stay genuine to your cause, constantly ensure that you listen. I personally feel that you can't send a message to people if you don't listen to what the people are saying. So listen and then react. And I constantly ensure that I do research in order to know more and be better in the way that I advocate the issues that I advocate for; social issues around women, youth, and people of colour. And to ensure that I am being heard in my education; for me personally, is to make sure that I stay clear and I use my voice to communicate my opinion. And more on my activism, I am always being intentional in everything that I do, constantly being intentional and genuine.
How are you taking care of your mental health and practising self-compassion during the lockdown?
So I believe that there is power in choosing to select your thoughts in the same manner that you select clothing in the morning and it is something that I've been teaching myself to do, to rather focus on the good and focus on thinking about myself and bettering myself during this lockdown. And I mainly have been keeping busy personally by exercising. I also focus on my craft and how I can better it and on how I can be better as a writer in terms of my writing. I do things that I love doing such as reading. And I also have deeper conversations with myself about how far I've come and how I can better myself.
And I will just give the advice to anyone to; take a seat, look at how far you've come, congratulate yourself and work on bettering yourself in whatever skills you have because we will never get a time like this ever again. And I feel that now that we're at home, now's the time to sit back and look at how far, you've come and work on selecting your thoughts, focus on the good, be more optimistic. It will pass, Coronavirus won't last forever, as cliche as it sounds, it won't last forever. And also we must just rejuvenate ourselves. So I think mainly just take this time to focus on yourself and better yourself and plan ahead, plan for what you want to see yourself doing later this year or next year.
What would your advice be to anyone who is experiencing any form of abuse and needs courage to the lockdown?
To anyone that has experienced abuse or violence during the lockdown, firstly, I would say that it is not your fault. And don't ever let any toxic person talk you into feeling that it is your fault because it is not. Don't allow them to label you as a victim because you are no one's victim and you are a survivor. And I would say; speak to someone that is close to you. It will help you to eventually find the courage within yourself to call the various help-lines and eventually speak up for yourself.
The deeper conversations pertaining to gender-based violence and related issues occur in urban and suburban areas, leaving out the majority. How do you think we can begin to address these issues to reach the masses?
Firstly, I think that we need to understand that nothing is really socially effective if the majority of our people are excluded. And so I've, said this in a speech before that, a lot of conversations pertaining to women's rights and deeper issues around gender-based violence take place in your suburban areas, and often leave out rural areas [and townships], which I think that we need to understand that all women matter equally. And nothing is really effective if we've left out the majority, and instead of taking steps forward in terms of gender equality, we're taking steps back because we've left out the majority they can truly be social change if the majority is left out.
Shame is one of the common emotions felt by women who have experienced abuse. As an activist. What do you normally advise women who feel or experience shame?
So I always, say that it is never your fault. And you are a survivor and not a victim because I feel that the word victim is one that puts down someone because you're made to feel insignificant as though you're someone's victim whereas you are a survivor and I feel that as a society we need to understand that rapists rape people and not clothing. So rape can never be the victims fault. And it is something that we as a society need to unlearn this belief around. That once someone has been raped, it is their fault. It is not their fault, it is not their clothing, it is not the fact that the decided to go out or they were at this place at this time. It is always the fault of the rapist and no one else. I would emphasize to someone that has experienced any form of abuse or rape that it is never your fault and you are not a victim. You are a survivor.
You have mentioned that you had insecurities about your hair when you were younger. What led you to continue to weigh your natural hair proudly, despite the critics, where did that strength and self confidence come from?
So I grew up having been conditioned by society to resent my identity, and resent everything else that comes with being black and of colour. And for the longest time ever, I would straighten my hair, do everything I could to somewhat make it look appealing to Eurocentric beauty standards, because I hated the idea of standing out and just everything around my identity. And then I remember when I turned 12, I started reading, Steve Biko's, "I Write What I Like". I had grown up around a lot of political material because of my father's involvement in the liberation struggle, and his interest in politics. So I came across Steve Biko's writings, and I started reading them. As I started reading them, I started to feel more confident in my identity. And I guess the ideology of black consciousness gave me a lot of comfort and confidence. And I then realised that as Africans, before we seek to wage any external revolutions, we have to begin to wage internal revolutions and undo what colonialism has embedded and sewn into us, which are the beauty standards, and how it's made us see ourselves and most importantly, we need to wage internal revolutions because, like the philosophy of black consciousness says, they can be no true emancipation without mental emancipation. And so the self confidence came, really from beginning to wage a revolution within myself learning to love myself, and just accepting myself and not just accepting myself in terms of being tolerant but loving myself, and being more confident. And being black and beautiful without apology. So it started when I was around 12. And I think it's just a constant thing that I've grown with and I'm constantly learning and unlearning.
Let's talk about colorism as a mixed race, light skinned young black woman, do you feel that your complexion impacts how you are perceived and what has been your experience with colorism in general?
Colorism is one of the things that I feel has been indoctrinated and embedded into our minds by colonialism. And we continue to see darker skinned people suffer more socially and in their workspaces. And I feel that we can't ignore this nor be oblivious to it because it is real and has caused much suffering for darker-skinned people. And I've always felt that this this is where we as black people need to wage an internal revolution within ourselves, to begin to emancipate our minds from what colonialism has embedded in us, by learning to love ourselves, learning to love our identities, teaching younger children to love their skin from a young age, and redefining the beauty standards in our communities. As well as by teaching children that they don't have to be light-skinned, to feel loved, nor feel that they matter by showing them role models such as Zozibini, Miss Universe whom they can look up to, as well as beginning to create our own content, such as writing children's books and animation series that feature darker-skinned main characters, to teach young children to love their identities and also just just show our communities that we don't only have to have light-skinned main characters on the covers of children's books, and in animation series. And growing up I've always seen how colorism always affected darker-skinned black children around me, in school, they'd always be bullied and it is something that I've never been oblivious to. And as a lighter-skinned girl, I've always felt that this is one of the things that we as black people need to me to begin to change within our communities, it needs to start with us. We're the ones that need to wage our own revolution in terms of redefining what the image of beauty is for us, and we're the ones who need to learn to love ourselves and undo what colonisation has done, the impact that it's had on our minds. And I feel that it's something that needs to be done by us and for us, without interference from anyone else. Because real confidence comes from yourself and believing that you don't need society to validate you as a person. I feel that once we've been able to do that, we'll be able to all reach a position whereby we're black and beautiful without apology and that's how it should be.
Tell us about your involvement in the State of the Nation Address that occurred in February this year.
In attending the State of the Nation Address, I personally wanted to represent young people who are the majority in our nation, in particular, young women of colour, as well as to find out what would have been planned by our government for our nation for this year. And also where young people would be positioned in that plan, in terms of young people's education, and young people's rights, as well as social issues, what would happen with social issues around young people such as the high unemployment rates, and free sanitary towels for girls. I wanted to represent young people.
In your TEDx talk, you speak about disrupting the based on one's mind and emphasize emancipation of the mind. What qualities would you say define an emancipated mind?
I would define an emancipated mind through these three easy points; number one, an emancipated mind is a mind that does not seek validation from anyone and one that thinks in a very unapologetic sense. Number two, has a deep desire to bring about social change. And finally, a mind that is free from any colonial or Western standards of bondage caused by the impact of colonialism.
You have mentioned that you don't like to be labelled a born free South African. What is the greatest change that you hope happens in your lifetime in order for you to feel more free?
I've mentioned that I do not like being labelled as a born-free because I've always questioned whether the freedom is a reality. For born-frees, and I've always felt that it is not enough that laws have changed. People still have to change as well in this country. And one of the greatest changes I'd like to see is, every African girl child, or actually every girl child in the world, being able to access a free decolonized quality education in my lifetime. As a firm believer in pan-African values, I'd like to see land expropriation without compensation. And finally, I'd like to also see us Africanizing our society more as African people and seeing a society where black people are free to wear their hair with pride in corporate institutions, in schooling institutions, and also see more schools where they empower African culture and African children can learn their African mother tongues. And I believe that these, these are changes are only possible if we as people, work hard for them, and we take on the baton and we fight for these. And I feel that we need to work towards a society whereby in the future, children do not have to abandon their childhood, to become activists, whereby in the future, we don't hear of 16 year-old climate change activists, or 13 year-old activists against racism, whereby we live in a society where freedom is a reality and not just an idea.
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Photography: Shannon Daniels
Interview: Phendu Kuta