Sacha van Niekerk
WITH roots strongly embedded in Durban, Managay Pillay grew up as the middle child with two brothers, and had a father who empowered her to always do her best.
“He gave me confidence. It wasn’t the tradition in most Indian families at that time for girls to be encouraged to explore their talents and go to college,” she said.
As for her childhood passions, they consisted primarily of playing tennis at club level and joining the neighbourhood kids in games of cricket and soccer.
“I was never restricted, so I played to my heart’s content,” said Pillay.
A successful businessman, Pillay’s father belonged to the ANC and was part of the movement during apartheid.
“As a result, I lived in a very cosmopolitan household, where everyone was welcome. This was the beginning of the making of me,” she added.
Mealtimes growing up were a paramount part of not only spending quality time with her family, but learning from them.
“Our dinners were a big thing. We would all sit together at the table and talk and voice our opinions, without being rude, of course. My parents always motivated us to have our own individual ideas, even if they differed from their own. I was always guided and corrected in a helpful manner when necessary. This enabled me to handle constructive criticism and understand different thought processes.”
After completing high school in Chatsworth, Pillay went on to study arts and design at the ML Sultan Campus, completing her degree at 21.
A few years later, at 24, Pillay met her husband-to-be, and after two years of courtship he proposed.
“Jay was a wonderful person in my life, someone who was brave enough to take me on. I was delighted to meet someone who shared my views and never stifled my soul.
“We started our lives together in Pietermaritzburg, where he grew up. When his company pulled out of the country due to the restrictive sanctions, he told me he would never work for somebody else. So we bought a business and turned it into a success.”
With South Africa in the infant stages of demolishing apartheid, Pillay said they wanted to set a trend by encompassing all races at a work level to accomplish a happy working environment and acceptance of diversity.
“We took pride in hiring a diverse team of people. Having staff like this was important, and it helped me grow, to see everyone’s values, learn from different mindsets, and see where we could improve to get along together.”
The pair were married for 25 years and had two sons, who are now building their own lives.
“In 2009, my husband passed away after being shot at the business. I entered a fight or flight state. After a few days, I went back to work to see to the business. Having been involved after all those years, working closely with my husband, and managing the business, who better than myself to take over?”
With the weight of the business on her shoulders, Pillay said she had to dig deep and keep going for the sake of her children.
“It was up to me to bring home the bacon; there was no alternative.”
This life-altering event changed the direction of Pillay’s journey.
“The challenges were there. I had to wake up every morning at 5am to see to my children and deal with 52 wholesalers and a staff of eight to 12 people, depending on the season.”
At the same time, Pillay said it made her look for the good in each day.
“I celebrate the simple pleasures of life, like reading, painting, taking my dog for walks on the beach and watching her swim, having dinner with friends and engaging in intelligent conversation.”
Four years after Jay Pillay’s death in 2009, she visited her niece in the US for eight weeks. When she returned to South Africa, she had a need to ensure that what happened to her family didn’t happen to others.
“I wanted to find an organisation that could help improve the lives of children, aiding them during a time when they needed it most, so that they could grow into the people they have the potential to become. And so others don’t have the misfortune of experiencing the plight that my family did.
“I know that it’s impossible to completely eradicate crime, but if I can change the mindset of one person inclined to violence, then I have a true purpose.”
Pillay went on the search for such a place – and found Girls and Boys Town in Tongaat.
She joined in 2013, and has been working with them ever since as the regional fundraising manager for KwaZulu-Natal.
“My role is to see that funds are brought in to keep it sustainable. In our current economy it’s an uphill battle, as we rely mainly on donations. I am so thankful to all the people who support us. It is thanks to them that we have reached 60 years and have managed to help 55 000 beneficiaries.”
The ethos at Girls and Boys Town is to empower the youth to shine and make them feel whole again,” said Pillay.
“Every child who comes here has a story; it’s not about what you have or do, it’s about how you make them feel… that is what they remember, and it allows you to connect with them, because you’ve touched their soul, you’ve helped them.”
Children can be referred to the NGO once a social worker has intervened, and they go through the magistrate’s court. They then evaluate whether the organisation will be able to assist them.
“It’s a residential care facility and outreach programme, mainly for children from dysfunctional families and with behavioural problems,” said Pillay.
As a woman who was constantly empowered by the men in her life, Pillay said: “One thing I always hone in on when it comes to what I stand for and believe in, is empowering women.
“I put one of my domestic workers through her studies in plant culture. Today, she is well on her way to getting a job in that field.”
“As long as we still see a need to highlight Women’s Day, it shows that the struggle is still very much a reality.
“We need to educate our sons, brothers and spouses and let them know we are not a nonentity, we are a force to be reckoned with. We are the rising voice and should always have a seat at the table.”