Author: Miriam Mannak
Michael Silas Matsema was a father, activist, humanitarian, and feminist on an ongoing quest to stomp out gender-based violence from the root up. Whilst engaging with men and boys from South Africa’s townships and helping them make them change their behaviour towards women and girls was his main focus, he also assisted survivors in rebuilding their strength and lives. Unfortunately, his mission ended prematurely. He passed away unexpectedly on 7 July.
It is true what they say: once an activist, always an activist. That certainly applies to Mike Matsema. Raised in Pretoria’s townships of Mamelodi, the activism bug bit him in the 1980s when he joined the fight for freedom and democracy, one for which he almost paid the highest price. He was detained in 1985 and 1986 by the security police and tortured, during which he lost his front teeth.
“Then his family home in Mamelodi was petrol bombed,” says Jacqueline Utamuriza-Nzisabira, from United Nations Women, who knew him well.
After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Matsema hung up his activist gloves, perceiving them as no longer needed – or so he thought. It didn’t take long before he dusted them off, this time to fight for better service delivery in his home township of Mamelodi.
Four years ago, however, after attending a workshop by the local branch of the HeForShe campaign, the father of four daughters changed course and joined the fight against gender-based violence. His approach: engaging with men and boys around their behaviour and mindset, a strategy that proved to be phenomenally successful.
“Mike was a male feminist, there are no two ways about it. He took every single opportunity, from funerals and weddings to church services and tavern visits to engage with fellow men and their sons about their behaviour towards women and girls, helping them deal with their issues, change their ways, and become better men,” says Jacqueline Utamuriza-Nzisabira. “He was not afraid to talk about and debate controversial issues, such as male privilege and toxic masculinity, even if it cost him his friendships. He didn’t care about that. All Mike wanted was to fight for women in his community, a struggle which he knew he couldn’t win without involving men.”
Pumzile Phiri still can’t believe her colleague, her brother, her best friend, and her long-term partner in the fight against gender-based violence in townships and informal settlements is no more. She remembers the last time they spoke, which was about two weeks before he died. “That was after a last-minute meeting. Mike called me and told me, ‘Pumzile, I need you to learn as much as you can from me’. He was serious, so I asked him what was wrong. He told me nothing was wrong, referring to me as his right-hand woman and the pillar of his strength,” she recalls, her voice dissolving in sadness. “I am so very heartbroken. With Mike dying, I lost my everything.”
What made Matsema the change-maker he was, was that he took his own story and background as an example, and that he walked the talk every single day. “Before joining the HeForShe campaign, Mike was like many other men out there. He was aggressive, didn’t make time for his family, and benefited hugely from his male privilege. This changed after attending his first workshop,” says Jacqueline Utamuriza-Nzisabira.
As an activist, he spoke frankly with men about his previous life and what made him change. It is a story many men can relate to.”
Being a father of four daughters, two of whom he raised by himself, was what drove him to become a better man and make a difference in his community and beyond. That, and Phiri’s story, she says. The 48-year-old from Mamelodi suffered for years at the hands of an abusive partner.
“At one of the first HeForShe workshops we both attended, during which we all shared our life experiences, Mike was very silent. When I opened up about my life, about having been in an abusive relationship, he started crying. After that, he rose and shared his own experiences,” Phiri explains. From that moment, they were inseparable in their mutual quest to end South Africa’s gender-based violence pandemic.
Besides focusing on men, Matsema and Phiri have worked with vulnerable women, helping them see the dangers of blessers and giving them the necessary tools to harness their inner strength and see their worth. With the support of United Nations Women and SACBC Justice and Peace Commission, this led to the founding of a movement for young women, called the Young Women for Life, which has since branched out to other townships and has thousands of members nationwide.
Micheal Silas Matsema will be laid to rest in Mamelodi on Saturday 12 July.