“A woman is killed every three hours at the hands of the people they trust for protection; 40 per cent will be raped in their lifetime…”

#GiveHerACrown is a female empowerment platform that exists to change the narrative for women in South Africa through the power of storytelling and the arts. This inspirational and uplifting initiative harnesses the power of arts to make a difference in the fight against gender inequality and femicide.

Odyssey’s Debra Robins caught up with the talented powerhouse champion and ambassador of the #GiveHerACrown campaign, Zolani Mahola  aka ‘The One Who Sings. Zolani is a South African Storyteller’, songstress, actress and inspirational thought leader and speaker.

Born in Port Elizabeth, she studied Theatre and Performance at the University of Cape Town where she met musicians with whom she would later form pan-African multi-cultural supergroup Freshlyground in 2002.
    Seventeen years and seven albums later Freshlyground has become a household name in South Africa and is one of Africa’s most acclaimed and successful bands. They have captured the heart of the continent and have claimed global recognition. One highlight of their nearly two-decade career was a collaboration with pop superstar Shakira, with whom they recorded the official song for the FIFA World Cup in 2010; performing it at the opening and closing ceremony for a global audience of over a billion people. The band has to date opened stages for and collaborated with such artists as Stevie Wonder, BB King, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Robbie Williams, Oliver Mtukudzi and Vusi Mahlasela to name but a few.

   Zolani Mahola is well loved and respected by South Africans for unifying the country through music and bridging social, racial and cultural divides through her commentary both artistically and as a thought leader.  Zolani’s spheres of interest lie in elevating the sanctity of the time of childhood – this includes how children are educated and raised in society; our connection to nature and in the power of our chosen story.

    Zolani is passionate about sharing her experience for the good of her community and has expanded her portfolio to include what she terms Inspiration Talks. In these talks she shares intimately about her life story, challenges and wins … encouraging others to investigate their own stories and to share them too. She believes that this sharing and listening leads to empathy and will lead to healing pain caused by division in our societies globally.

    Zolani Mahola lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her beloved husband and two fabulous sons.  

What inspired you to champion the #GiveHerACrown campaign as an ambassador? 

In 2019 I discovered the magic of giving myself a crown. I designed and had all kinds of different styles of crowns made for me. It changed the way I saw myself in a very fun and childlike way. When I was asked by the Change Collective to be the ambassador for the #GiveHerACrown campaign I felt immediate alignment. The tag line “reclaim our story” is also as significant for me as I had personally undergone the process of leaving the comfort of the pan-African supergroup Freshlyground to embark on a solo career of my own. That move came with much internal work around my previous personal narratives, many of which I came to understand myself to have outgrown. I love the idea of reclaiming our narrative. We are a country which has undergone a massive transformation on so many levels. Our past stories are still very much with us and their legacies have left deeply traumatic manifestations like the pandemic of femicide and gender-based violence which rages through our country, leaving few unaffected. Like so many South Africans and people the world over, I am deeply pained by the scourge of gender-based violence in our society. The campaign highlights the need for us to elevate our women and to respect each other’s stories.

Zolani, you composed and recorded a poignant and powerful song for this campaign, ‘Remember Who You Are’.* Tell us about the inspiration behind the song?

Yes… when I was thinking about the campaign I went out into a wide open natural landscape with my guitar and a flask of water. I considered myself as a part of that landscape … I considered the birds singing, the mountains in their majesty and later the splendour of the stars. I considered how we are all made of matter and as such are connected with all living things. The question formed: If the stars, mountains and birds are perfect then is the case not the same with us as humans? I thought of so many examples of hurtful flaws in our humanity, where we reach out and hurt each other deeply… I thought about how wounded we have to be to wound another so. I then wondered … if we could place a high premium on elevating the sanctity of the time of childhood, so that every child feels themselves as perfect as the forests and the skies, then perhaps we could prevent those becoming victims and perpetrators later on in life. 

I’m therefore really thrilled that the crowdfunding campaign attached to #GiveHerACrown will be geared towards creating a transformative educational programme to train and empower teachers to champion gender equality with their students, using creativity and storytelling to drive empathy and behavioural change. 

Birthed in 2020 GiveHerACrown is powerful and unique? And how do you see it continuing in 2021?

I see this campaign continuing in 2021 under a new but similar name: #GiveThemACrown. In the lyrics of Remember Who You Are I blend the genders and give space to those who identify neither as He nor She but as ‘They’ and ‘Them’. I think that more and more we are being invited to step out of the binary in all fields and embrace how unique every individual is. The other inclusivity gift of the name #GiveThemACrown is also embedded in the message of the song and is the secret in the mission for gender equality: We are all in this together. We cannot end gender-based violence, we cannot end misogyny, we cannot end sexual discrimination without everyone being involved and without everyone feeling that we all are sovereign – not one human more than another.
So look under your seat… your very own CROWN!!! Lol! 

In an ideal world what recourse and protection should any woman or girl have?

In an ideal world women and children should not need protection from violence. They should feel safe in the streets and in their homes. They should be encouraged to speak their minds and they should be believed the moment they express discomfort or lack of safety. There are massive paradigm shifts that we need to undergo as a society. I believe that the sanctity of the time of childhood is at the core. In a country where the majority of the population has been systematically disavowed of their humanity we need an equally systematic and intensive reprogramming that puts our humanity and particularly places the experience of the child at the very centre of our society. After all… the safer, stronger, happier and more seen our children are … the more whole adults they will become; able to act from a place of love

If you could write one new law that everybody had to obey, what would it be?

Everyone is required to spend an hour on their personal wellbeing a day. This time is mandated by law and applies to children and adults alike. It is quiet time, free of devices, preferably in nature and inspiring a deep sense of personal connection with oneself.  

What do you believe every woman can do to stand in their power, take back their power and live the gentle lives they desire and deserve?

I believe that there is power in commanding our stories. In really investigating the stories of our own lives and deciding which threads we wish to pick up on and amplify and which to discard. My prime example is my own experience. I was sexually abused as a child by my stepbrother and for many years I lived with an undiagnosed feeling of lack of worth, shame and guilt. In the course of really unpacking this part of my story I was able to separate his actions from my intrinsic worth. I was also able to recover my identity as a beloved daughter, as an ally to myself and as a creative and inspired being. It is a process and one needs to begin and be open and willing to find the answers within. 

What can each of us can do to make a difference?

Each of us can take care of ourselves… each of us can be responsible for our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It is a paradoxical truth that, when we ourselves are healthy, we can then be a part of a healthy society as opposed to the belief that we need to seek the wellbeing of others first in order to create that healthy society. I believe that it all begins in the stories we receive in childhood about ourselves and others. If children perceive themselves to be whole and worthy from the outset then the chances of their contributing to a whole, worthy and healthy society are increased exponentially. 

In conclusion what message of hope and inspiration would you like to share with our readers for 2021?

Look at the kids of today. They are marvellous. They see the world in a much different way to the way generations before them have. I find them endlessly inspiring… let’s give them a crown, thus empowering them to change the world for the better. 

2021 Power Affirmation:
This moment, this year, I stand up, I stand tall and I stand in my power. And so it is

*Remember Who You Are, the song written for the #GiveHerACrown campaign, is the first single off Zolani’s debut solo album, which is set for release in the first quarter of 2021. The album will be released under her artist name ‘The One Who Sings’ and the current working title is You Need to Say It. Keep a look-out… Ed.