Marlene le Roux is a rural girl (“plattelandse meisie”) from Wellington in the Western Cape. She grew up with a love for music, a passion for people and a disability due to polio contraction at the age of three months. These three things shaped her life and made her the person that she is proud to be today.
She is a life partner, a mother of two, the director of Audience Development and Education at the Artscape and very successful professionally. She has served on numerous boards and organisations, and is currently serving as a director of Sigma Health, a commissioner of the Constitutional Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities and she is the chairperson of the Certificate Youth Trainers (a skills and leadership development programme sponsored by the French Foreign Ministry). Marlene has also received many accolades for her contribution to social transformation and the arts. Among these awards are the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year, art category (1998), Desmond Tutu Legendary Award (2001), Woman of the World Path the Way (2004) and the Western Cape Provincial Award for Arts and Culture (2005).
This extraordinary woman laughs deeply, dances passionately, and lives life hard. Let’s get to know Marlene better and understand what shaped her, what drives her, and how she views success.
It is well known that you have a true passion for development, especially amongst the youth. Tell us more about your community work and your involvement with young people.
I embrace and use the arts as a vehicle to look at our social challenges. To illustrate, I spearheaded an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the form of an industrial theatre production called Soundtrack for Life. This project basically looks at the struggles that young people have within themselves to become more aware of the disease. It addresses issues such as date rape, alcohol, using a condom, cultural norms, societal and peer pressure, etc.
It is all about changing mindsets. In South Africa we pretty much still live within our boxes. By changing our mindsets we can bring people together. I initiated the Schools Arts Festival where we integrate schools of various backgrounds and communities on stage. Not only do the children integrate, but parents also mix in the audience! It is really about bringing people together so that we can have a better understanding and appreciation of diversity.
What motivates you to do what you do?
The arts truly are a medium for social change – it is about breaking down prejudices and developing programmes for social transformation. Politicians must stop talking and do more! It irks me so much that we cannot get rid of basic poverty. And through my work, I hope that I raise awareness about these issues and build a capacity to deal with it. We, as a nation, must ensure taht everyone have basic shelter, education and health – those are really the three key necessities in a society.
I cannot highlight the importance of education enough. I had wonderful teachers during my school years – one that deserves mention is dr Michael le Cordeur, someone who, to this day, exemplifies that teaching is a calling, not just a profession. Dr Le Cordeur is a man of principle and he is the reason why I strongly believe in role models and the need for our nation to invest in education. Education opens the mind to choices and world views, it brings you in touch with yourself and it breeds a healthy nation.
You came a long way in cultivating success. What practical advice can you offer young people who want to reach and nurture success?
For me it is of the utmost importance to give back to people in order for them to have a quality life. My yardstick for success constitutes the basic things: being able to provide for my family, being grateful, and giving 150% in my job. I am grateful to have a job!
Advice I can offer would include: belong to organisations, look at the value of people and not economics only, have a solid belief system, a strong character and integrity.
How important is confidence and building self-esteem as a young person, and in your experience, how do you develop that?
It is a journey. I think my disability has been a gift … it taught me how it feels to be left out. In developing my confidence and self-esteem, my building blocks were never to build your confidence on hurting others, to be aware of the needs of others and to be very sensitive of that.
On my path I’ve had very positive role models. It is extremely important to be selective about who you surround yourself with. I have been privileged to be around young female friends who have been very supportive and positive in my quest for what I believe in and who I am as a person. Today, I’m very proud to be a woman of colour. I’m proud of my challenges, because it made me who I am.
To make mistakes in life is very important. You should believe in yourself and not build your self-esteem on arrogance. Read a lot! Listen to other people’s stories! Do not take yourself too seriously and you would not see yourself as so important.
Do you have a guiding principle in life?
What guides me is my love for people! Through my disability I learned that everybody has a purpose in life. I always say – and excuse me for being so direct – that we are all human beings and we all need to go to the toilet at the end of the day! (Yes, she said it, twice!) It is so important that we do not lose our humanity, our humility and our ability to feel for someone else. It is my absolute love for people, and my belief in our common humanity that guides me.
What is your most notable milestone?
I had a brain tumour and the doctor told me that I would never be able to have children. Today I have two beautiful children. When I look at them I know for sure that they are my greatest achievement in life. They put life my life in perspective.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
To survive with my son, Adam, who is also disabled (cerebral palsy). I worked my whole life to overcome my own disability and then to deal with the disability of my child makes the fight for disability even bigger. I am lucky though, I earn a good salary, and while others pay there Mercedes-Benzes, I pay my son’s two nurses – they are my luxuries.
Your life is a testimony of overcoming obstacles and of determination. What drives you to rise above difficult times?
My own disability prepared me for all these challenges. I believe that you must give love to get love; give support to get support. It’s all about your attitude towards your circumstances. I am therefore a firm believer in positive thinking. Remember, that there is always someone worse off than you! I never regretted anything in my life (and isn’t that powerful!).
Do you have a mentor?
Oh, I have lots of them! I’m not scared to ask for advice, and I’m not afraid of failure – exactly the reasons my mentors are so important to me. My life partner is a very important mentor to me. I always check with him on various levels. My Aunt Marjorie is a mentor on many life issues. My mother-in-law is my mentor on a spiritual level. Lucia Hess is an amazing mentor about life in general; Michael Maas is my mentor in the workplace. Oh, there are so many of them on many different levels, and they play major roles in my life.
Can you think of three essential tools that any mentor should have?
One is listening; another is to be able to balance critical and positive advice. A mentor cannot just please people. A third pointer would be to believe that you can be a mentor. A mentor-mentee relationship is a very personal one and it requires work and commitment from both. At the Artscape we have our own mentorship programme where we’ve just had twelve young people mentored and trained in their various fields by our professionals here. At the Artscape we believe in mentorship as a tool for social development.
Let’s talk about your publication, ‘Look at Me’. It showcases the S’s – sassiness, sensuality, sexiness, strength and stories – of 23 disabled women. Share with us what inspired this project and what you want to achieve through it.
The book’s approach is a feminist one. It tells the stories of women who have come to accept themselves. It says ‘accept me, it is your problem if you do not!’ Essentially it is about self-acceptance. The book has done wonders for the confidence of the women. It gave them a voice. Many of them are now doing motivational talks about it.
You’ve achieved so much, is there a goal that you still want to fulfill?
Somehow I lost my voice through all the challenges that I faced. A goal that I still want to fulfill would definitely be to start singing again!
What is your favourite pastime outside of work?
I love to dance! I have the time of my life dancing! Oh, and I love to laugh – loudly so. I also enjoy swimming and reading.
I’m currently reading ‘Petronella van die Kaap’ again. It reminds me that we need to tell our stories to our kids. I also enjoyed E. K. M. Dido’s ’n Stringetjie Blou Krale’ - it puts life in context.
Marlene le Roux impersonates nobility, humility and the gracefulness of the human spirit so well. Her life exemplifies the capacity to withstand hardship time and again, and to rise with a steadfast commitment to life, love, people and passion.
“… Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise / I rise / I rise.”