Sacha van Niek­erk

The Star Early Edition - - VERVE -

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.”

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