Through her work as an activist for albinism, Siposetu (Sethu) Mbuli from Kayamandi, made headlines this week after meeting the Queen of England as one of the Queen’s Young Leaders 2018.
The award is given annually to young leaders between the ages of 18 and 29 from across the Commonwealth, in recognition of their leadership skills. The programme is in its fourth and final year to create a unique community of 240 influential change makers.
Mbuli (24) spent a large part of her young life in Kayamandi, where she also attended school before starting her studies at the University of Cape Town. She is now in her final year of chemistry and oceanography.
Born in a small village outside of King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape, she moved to Stellenbosch in 2009 and attended both Makhupula and Kayamandi High Schools. Her voice is also well-known among Radio MFM listeners, as she joined the Stellenbosch radio station when only 15 years old, and worked for it for eight years before finishing at the beginning of the year.
Stellenbosch is what Mbuli calls home. “Growing up in Stellenbosch I got to know a lot of people really quickly,” she said. “It is so easy for me to connect with people in terms of things that I wanted to do in the community.”
Mbuli’s journey as an activist was never a conscious decision. “I don’t think I was ever really aware that I was becoming an activist,” she said. “My work started out of my own frustration over how people were treating me and the misconceptions around albinism.
“It is such a personal journey and something I have gone through, so I understand the struggle and the difficulties around having the condition. My work was born out of my own frustration and the discrimination I faced as a child and not wanting other young people to face that.”
Love, this Skin started as an online platform where she could speak to other young people with albinism and chat about their experiences and challenges. “I think in this way we are trying to challenge the media perceptions around albinism,” Mbuli said. “It is good to show the nuances of the challenges we face.
“I also work with young people. We offer workshops and support groups and community awareness drives where we go out to communities where people with albinism live and talk about the condition and the causes.”
Meeting the British royal family was an amazing experience for Sethu. “It went by so quickly!” she says. “Afterwards I kept on asking my fellow Queen’s Young Leaders: ‘What just happened?’
“Some of the conversations I don’t remember! I remember meeting the Queen and saying to myself, ‘Okay, don’t say something stupid! Just make sure to nod and say ‘Yes, Your Majesty.’ I was just trying not to forget all the things I was told.”
The Queen’s first words to Sethu was: “So, you are from South Africa, are you? It took me five seconds to realise that she was speaking to me! It was really a surreal experience for which I am so grateful.”
The award is also a fantastic platform for the work that Mbuli is doing.
“It was the biggest moment I have had in my career for Love, this Skin and albinism awareness. More than anything it is the biggest platform I have received to talk about albinism and to show people albinism is a normal thing. Visibility is a huge part of what I do and being able to raise. I am so looking forward to what the future holds in that regard.”
Next for Mbuli is to expand her reach. She would like to expand the work that she is doing to other South African communities and African countries, and for that reason this platform has been a fantastic boost.
Mbuli’s dress for the occasion was made by the designer Hendrik Vermeulen. “I initially wanted something that will showcase my albinism. For a long time growing up I tried to hide who and what I am. I wanted the dress to be centre stage, that my condition is something that I am not ashamed of.”
The colour of the dress showed off her skin colour, while the bottom was decorated with proteas, our national flower, and incorporated with Xhosa patterns to show that part of her heritage.
“The dress showed off my albinism,” Mbuli says. “It was an important part of the conversation.”
Her family and closest friends still live in Stellenbosch, and she returns as often as her studies allow.
Mbuli won the award with another South African, Thamsanqa Hoza from Cape Town.
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