Joyce Malebo

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Summary: Joyce Malebo, a South African senior citizen and women's rights activist, organises protests, referrals, and workshops to empower victims of gender-based violence in Gugulethu. In 2013, Malebo joined and became the Coordinator of the Gugulethu Women's Circle, a group that fights for gender equality. During protests, the police harass and mock her, as do others, even within her organization. But Malebo maintains that none of that will weaken her, adding that neither force nor age will stop her from fighting for the rights of women abused and without shelter.

Profile: Joyce Malebo started her activism in the late 1980s as a shop steward. Her workmates, having seen her fearless character and commitment to unionism, elected her in 1987 as their representative. They made a good choice: For the six years that Malebo represented her co-workers at hearings, she never lost a case. When her factory was closed in 1995, Malebo joined community organizations such as the Right2Know and Housing Assembly. That’s when she started mobilizing her community—Gugulethu—to fight against the Secrecy Bill.

The Secrecy Bill, known formally as the Protection of State of Information Act, was adopted by the South Africa Parliament in 2013. It has often been criticised for provisions that sought to undermine access to information of public interest. Thanks to the efforts of Malebo and others, the Act has undergone major improvements.

In 1995, on realising that her community members lived without dignified shelter in squalid conditions, Malebo and her colleagues challenged the government to provide decent housing for its people as per constitutional provisions. According to conservative research, about 12 million people are in dire need of housing in South Africa, most of them living in informal settlements—this despite the fact that the country's constitution—Sections 26 and 28—provides for the right to decent housing for both adults and children.

In 2013, Malebo joined the Gugulethu Women Circle as its coordinator. This was after she and her colleagues noticed an increase in domestic violence, including femicide. This was especially true of her own community: Gugulethu was dubbed South Africa's “Murder Capital”. Malebo offers workshops, leads protests, and collaborates with other organizations. She and other members of the Circle also refer victims of domestic violence to places where they can get counseling and rehabilitation.

“Myself and the people I work with”, says Malebo, “try to help them where we can. Advise them and refer them to places where they can get help.” She notes that one in every three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence.

Malebo and her colleagues also secure food from companies and individuals to support hungry families. She herself uses her grant money and other income to buy food and bus fare for those who can’t afford it.

Malebo's work is not easy. While many others of her age have retired from activism, Malebo continues to work for her community. She says that when she organises and leads protests, the police often harass her and tell her to go and play with her grandchildren. And it’s not only harassment and mockery: In 2023, Lulama Dinginto, Deputy Chairperson of the Gugulethu Community Policing Forum, was shot and killed at her home. Further, Malebo expresses concern at the level of infiltration by retrogressive elements within her organisation who are bent on destroying her dignity and reputation: “There are people pretending to be with us but at the same time bad-mouthing us.”

Nonetheless, Malebo maintains that despite these challenges, she will not be weakened, adding that neither age nor repression will stop her from fighting for what she believes is right.