March is the month of Human Rights in South Africa, you can read more about the holiday here. Honestly, every month needs to be this here, there are so many Human Rights offences here and as a nation we have a lot to repair and resolve. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate collection of books to review for this week’s book stack.

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The Torchbearer Series, written by Wendy Maartens and illustrated by Linki Brand, is a powerful collection of beautifully illustrated stories about incredible South African women, who have overcome enormous hurdles and followed their hearts. From scientists to artists, doctors to poets, older women to school girls there is someone for everyone in these books.

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Don’t be misled by the colourful illustrations and bright and fun presentation of this series, this not a South African version of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. These are gritty stories about tough issues that younger readers might struggle with. A lot of the stories include topics that might be triggering, so I put these books straight into the upper middle grade and teen section of books to read. That being said, they are excellent… topical, and can I have a HOORAH: local – because representation really does count.

The Torchbearers Series: Inspirational women of South Africa

written by Wendy Maartens

illustrated by Linki Brand

There are four books in this beautiful box collection and each book has stories of three famous South African women in them. I like they have written about women that my kids have seen in the news or heard about. To be honest, the author didn’t have to look too far, South Africa is full of incredible women. In a country full of political nuance, where actions speak MUCH louder than words, the voice of women desperately needs to be heard, what better way than to teach our children that there are famous women doing all sorts of great things. These stories are perfect to read to a classroom of children, girls and boys will appreciate them. We have been reading them for school and they have been so useful in understanding just what other folk might be struggling with. Everybody has a story, and these books are a good place to start listening to them.


The books include women from all cultures and all beliefs, it covers physical and mental health. And let’s be honest, you don’t get to be heroic if you haven’t been through some sort of trial. Many of these women have been through some sort of abuse and have overcome very distressing and frustrating circumstances. As their teacher or parent of younger kids you may want to read this stories through for yourself first before you read them aloud to your kids, so that you are a little prepared to talk about things that may not have come up in your everyday conversation before. This is an excellent way to introduce your children to issues that the world is facing today… and covering them in a book in an honest conversation. We need our kids to be able to talk to us about anything at all, these stories will help raise issues in a non-confrontational way.

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We read these stories aloud together, my intention was to talk about the issues that arose in them. That being said I would definitely give these books to my high schoolers to read for projects, interest and to open up conversation. These stories are great for conversations about the specific troubles women in general face in South Africa. This collection of books is a great place to start, to meet the real people behind their public faces.

Meet the Torchbearers

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  1. Ingrid Jonker: A South African Poet (1933 – 1965) and Political Activist:
    Ingrid had a harrowing childhood, she was raised in poverty, while her wealthy father was a leader in the National Party. When she won South Africa’s highest literary prize he was ashamed of his daughter and her friends for opposing apartheid, rather than proud of her achievement. She suffered from severe bouts of depression and tragically died from drowning, by suicide. Nelson Mandela read her poem, Die Kind, at his inaugural address in Parliament and in 2004, she was awarded the Order of Ikhanga for her contribution to literature and her struggle for human rights in South Africa.
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  3. Thuli Madonsela: Public Protector, Fighter of Corruption.
  4. Thuli, the middle child of seven, group up in a small home in Soweto. She group up during the time of the 1976 riots, when students were protesting about the injustices in South African education. Thuli managed to finish her schooling and went on to be a teaching assistant, her hard work paid off and she received a law degree from Wits University. Thuli, with her brother became part of the resistance movement and when South Africa was ready to write a new constitution, Thuli was ready to be part of that team. She went on to become the Public Protector, and brought many crimes that had been perpetrated against the South African public to light.

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  5. Grizelda Grootboom: Human Trafficking Survivor.
  6. Grizelda grew up in District Six in Cape Town with her grandparents, until she was forced to moved to the Cape Flats at the age on eight. A year later she was living in a shelter, her grandparents had died and she was living after a brutal gang rape at the age of nine, she was forced onto the streets. One day a girl promised her a better life in Johannesburg, she jumped at the chance, only to discover a nightmare that lasted twelve years… She was starved, drugged and forced into trade. A horrific life that she was lucky to escape from…
    She is now an advocate against human trafficking, raising awareness amongst communities… you can read her story here. If you want to know more about Human Trafficking and practical ways that you can help then A21 is a great place to look.

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  7. Caster Semenya: Olympic Athlete
  8. I cannot believe there is a South African anywhere that hasn’t heard of the great Caster Semenya. Caster’s incredible ability to run was recognised from an early age. When she arrived at high school, she worked hard to get receive the respect of the other students, and her headmaster entered her into several races. She ran her way into University and a degree in Sport Science, where she had a team of coaches, physios and nutritionists behind her, helping her to do better and better as she toured the country. She had been bullied and teased about her appearance for years, it was only after a series of pre-race “health checks” on the international tour, that she realised they were questioning her gender. And so began the on-again/off-again allowed to race/not allowed to race of Caster Semenya, who continued to run her heart out and gold after gold… rules were change, rules were manipulated and yet she continued to run.

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  9. Zulaikha Patel: Stands Against Injustice.
  10. Read this story to discover how a young girl at Pretoria Girls High became a fashion icon and political activist over a hairdo – it sounds silly really. But when school rules were written in the era of “white’s only” schools, then Zulaikah and other children of colour found themselves in the sinking spiral of “you are never good enough” because their hair would not abide by the rules. Zulaikha realised that there was far more at stake than just her hairdo… she was accused of terrorism, her family was threatened but Zulaikha stood firm.

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  11. Saray Khumalo: Mountaineer and Motivational Speaker.
  12. Saray grew up on the plains of Africa, born in Zambia, raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and went to University in Zimbabwe. She now lives in South Africa and in 2012 began the Explorer Grand Slam Challenge. The Explorer Grand Slam Challenge is to hike the highest peak on every continent and ski to the poles. She has summited four of the peaks: Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and Everest in Asia, as well as skiing to the South Pole… she is well on her way. As a child she was wild about Super Heroes, but realised that none of them looked like her… she set out to change the face of our heroes.

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  13. Esther Mahlangu: Artist – Ndbele Painter:
  14. There is a Rolls Royce, the “Mahlangu Phantom” named after this famous South African Artist. As a child her mother and grandmother taught her how to paint, they took her out into the veld to show her how to create the traditional paints. She has been invited to paint murals all over the world, but keeping with tradition she returned to her roots to teach local girls about their heritage and art. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to create beautiful art, she teaches her girls that we already own ten of the best brushes: five on each hand and chicken feathers work for anything more. You will find Esther’s art on BMW’s and skateboards, shoes, a vodka bottle and even the tail of several Jet planes… but her heart lies in her home, a clay hut, with her dogs and chickens. She has also received the Order of Ikhamanga.

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  15. Vanessa Govender: Journalist
  16. Vanessa Govender was one of the first female Indian TV journalists in South Africa and one of our leading power houses. What the public didn’t know was that behind the scenes she was the victim of brutal abuse at the hands of her husband. As a child she grew up under the shadow of bullying, her skin was a darker colour than her friends’ and so began a mindset where she felt “less” than others… and that opened the door for her “perfect in the public eye” husband to abuse her. She felt she deserved the treatment she received from her husband, because she was somehow “less.” She had to hit rock bottom before she turned her life around. In a country where Gender Based Violence is at its worst, Vanessa tells her story so that others have hope and know that they too can step out of fear.

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  17. Elsje Neethling: Cancer Survivor and Artist:
  18. Elsje is the middle child in the famous South African swimming family, the Neethlings. She suffered from terrible headaches and after an award winning gala in high school, she woke up the next morning unable to move. It turns out that Elsje had choroid plexus carcinoma a particularly aggressive form of cancer. She was determined to survive and she did, she lived cancer free for several years until just before her wedding day, when she discovered that it had returned and instead of attaching to her brain, it had attached to her spine. She continues to live with cancer, as had to adapt to life in a wheel chair, but Elsje Neethling just never gives up. Her brother may have won Olympic medals, but Elsja is a true champion.

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  19. Zolani Mahola: Musician and Abuse Survivor.
  20. Zolani is the world renowned lead singer of the group Freshly Ground, and if you really haven’t heard of them then you will definitely remember the opening song of the 2010 World Cup, Waka, Waka – This time for Africa… As a small child her mom went to hospital to give birth to her brother, and never cam home. She was raised by her step mom in a family of new and different siblings, she didn’t fit in and was treated differently and when one of her step brothers started abusing her, she wanted to give up… but she put it all away for her career until years later, when she had her first son, and she realised that she wanted to be a great example to him… and that meant getting her life back on track. This is a great example of life on stage looks so perfect and close up, far from perfect. She had to work on her physical health and her mental health to be the solo artist that she is today.

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  21. Maggie Jooste: Concentration Camp Survivor.
  22. This is the story of a country girl at the time of the Boer War, Maggie was 13 at the time of the war and she kept a diary throughout it. At the start of the war, Maggie and her seven siblings were best friends with their English friends, the Russels, who lived over the road. While her father is away fighting the British soldiers, the Khakis, moved into town. Women and children were not allowed out of their homes and there was no food available to them. All the furniture was taken away, everything that had been passed down from generation to generation, and burnt in the town square. After more than half a year of war what remained of the family were shipped, via cattle train, to their prison of war camp. Before they were shipped away they saved a few precious papers and photographs in a neighbours baby pram. Conditions in the camp were below humane when they arrived and two years later one cannot imagine. Maggie shows resilience like no other, her family lost everything, even her baby sister, but they never gave up.

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  23. Suna Venter: Journalist who Died of Broken Heart Syndrome.
  24. Suna was a journalist, who specialised in current affairs. She was one of the famous SABC 8, eight journalists that fought for the freedom of journalism. This team of eight objected to the policy changes that the SABC had implemented to ban certain sound and video clips. Their lives were threatened again and again, but Suna was under the most pressure, she was shot at, her brakes were tampered with, in the middle of the night she was taken to a cemetery, where the criminals tied her to a tree and set it alight. She narrowly escaped with her life time and time again. Under this pressure she continued to do her job, to present the news to the world… she was deeply concerned for the people left in the wake of the violent news she was reporting on… to that end she worked with the Gift of the Givers and travelled to war torn countries like Libya, Gaza and Egypt on Humanitarian Issues. She tried to make sure that her story and the truth would be available to the press, should anything happen to her. Eventually the stress completely overwhelmed her and she died from stree-induced cardiomyopathy.

Amazon Affiliate Links used in this post.

These books were given to us for review purposes by Penguin Random House South Africa. This is not a sponsored post and opinions expressed are entirely our own.

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