Melene Rossouw: From Backyard Dweller to Lawyer to International Award Winner

Back when she was what is called, a ‘backyard dweller’, the then 8 year old Melene Rossouw had already set in motion her plans for success. She only knew that she wanted to have a better life but did not know that she would become a successful law graduate, start an internationally recognised women’s rights organisation and travel the world because people wanted to hear her speak, all by the age of 35.

Now, for those that do not know, a backyard dwelling is an informal structure that has been erected in a backyard, much like a shed. In this case, Melene spent the first nine years of her life in the backyard of her aunt’s Bellville South home, in what was essentially a zinc house. Given that the house was made of the same thin metal zinc sheet used to place on top of roofs, it was not exactly luxury accommodation. Hot in summer, cold in winter and with no plumbing; Melene admits that it was bleak and not the kind of place where a kid could dream big.

Despite all of this, Melene still managed to excel both in academics and sports. In fact, when she was eight, she attended her first national athletics event in Pretoria where she won her first gold medal. Running barefoot, it made her realise that if you work hard, anything is possible. She says that it was sports that taught her about discipline and how to keep your eyes focused on your goals.

When Melene was nine, her mom, Deserie, managed to earn enough to rent a house and a few years later, at the age of 40, she could finally afford to buy a house of her own. This is one of the two most important parts of Melene’s story. Deserie’s determined and disciplined attitude to buying a house and making sure that her two daughters went to bed with full bellies, formed the basis for how Melene lived her life and who she would become.

After matriculating, she went on to study law at the University of the Western Cape, quickly finding her place as an activist and elected as a member of the Student Representative Council (SRC), all by the age of 18. She eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) in 2006, and worked for a law firm as a Candidate Attorney. This is where she discovered that she is just like her mother.

Now, to understand what is meant by, ‘she is just like her mother, you have to know the second most important part of Melene’s story. Her mom, Deserie, was that aunty in the neighbourhood who took in anybody that needed help, especially abused women and children. It did not matter how little they had or whether they lived in a zinc shed or brick house, as far as Deserie was concerned, there was never an excuse to not share. When Melene started working, she did not know how much like her mom she is really is.

As a candidate attorney, her job included giving legal advice and charging a fee for that advice. Instead, she spent most of her time giving legal advice to people who could not afford it and did not have the heart to charge them. She also felt guilty for not charging her clients, so she used her own salary to cover the fees. If she was ever going to stand a chance of putting food on the table, this was not going to work. She needed another plan.

The following year, she became a legal researcher at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, where she worked for the struggle icon and Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs. Her reputation for being a hardworking and competent young person propelled her into the Office of the Presidency in 2010 where she was appointed as the National Cabinet Committee Secretary responsible for Justice, Crime Prevention and Security as well as Governance and Administration. She then went on to work as a Special Advisor to the Minister of Sports and Recreation and Media Liaison for the Minister of Tourism. As her professional CV grew, so did her salary and she was finally able to make her mom’s life a little bit easier. She did not stop there however.

During this time, Melene also graduated with a Masters degree in Public and Constitutional  Law, graduating in 2012. She also completed Diplomas in Media Studies (Institute for Journalism South Africa) and through the prestigious Mandela Washington fellowship, she completed a course on Governance and Democracy (University of Virginia) and Leadership (William & Mary – Raymond A. Mason School of Business).

Melene’s future was secured. She was a highly experienced and highly respected professional with several qualifications and a network of influential contacts right across the world. Although she appreciated the opportunities that was given to her, she was still just like Deserie, that auntie in the neighbourhood that was always helping people.

In 2017, at the age of 32, Melene created the ‘Women Lead Movement’, an organisation that empowers women and girls through mentorships and human rights programmes. Now, creating an organisation to help people is not as easy it sounds. She had to use her own money so resources were tight. However, despite its humble beginnings, Deserie’s daughter worked hard to rapidly turn it into a highly effective organisation.

In less than 3 years, the movement has managed to empower more than 2000 women and young people and has been recognized by local and international human rights agencies. It has expanded internationally, opening an office in Madagascar with plans to open another office in Namibia. Although it focused on women empowerment, it also runs projects to teach boys and young men about the rights of women so that they can become better adults.

Melene’s work with the organisation led to international recognition. She has already been selected as an Inaugural Obama Leader in Africa, a Future Africa Forum Leader and a Mandela Washington Fellow. She had been selected by the International  Advocacy Organisation,  ONE Global Campaign, to feature in three of their global campaigns (“Progress not Promises”, “ Yours  in Power” and “Pass the Mic”) and she has had the honour of meeting former President Barrack Obama (as an Obama Leader). As a Future Africa Forum Leader, she has written and spoken extensively on Democracy and Governance in Africa and generally sought after to speak at international conferences (which include being the moderator at the Global Gender Summit in Rwanda).

This year alone, she had been selected as one of the JCI’s 2020 ‘Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World and a JCI ‘Ten Outstanding Young Persons of South Africa’ (nominated for her ‘Contribution to Children, World Peace and Human Rights’). More recently, she was selected as one of Africa’s ‘100 Most Influential Women’, in the category of Philanthropy. She is listed among African powerhouses such as Graca Machel and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

These days, when she is not running the movement, she is doing the thing that started her on her current professional course: she gives free legal advice to those who can’t afford it. She is also running around doing multiple interviews and being asked to speak at various events.

Yes, Deserie’s daughter did quite well for herself but that’s not the moral of the story. The moral of the story is this: a little person grows up to be the culmination of many influences, the most important being the one who raises and cares for them. Deserie is hardworking and so is her daughter. Deserie is kind and so is her daughter. Of course, as an adult, you eventually make a choice as to what you want to be. Thank goodness that little Melene Rossouw grew up and chose to be just like her mom.

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