We are often told that we should not blame apartheid, but in Marlene le Roux’s case, that is not true. It was because of the discriminatory apartheid system that she contracted polio at the age of 3, leaving her disabled. However, determined to never let apartheid or her disability dictate her destiny, she went on to become a renowned activist, CEO, and a recipient of the prestigious Commonwealth Point of Light award.
Born and raised in Wellington, Marlene contracted polio at a time when it was already a preventable disease, but the apartheid regime refused to provide Coloured clinics with the necessary vaccines. The apartheid doctors refused to help her and told her mom that she was only teething. Her mom knew that there was something wrong and had told the doctor this. However, the response of these doctors was that ‘hotnotte’ do not know anything. By the time it became obvious that Marlene had polio, it was too late and her mother and granny would, for the rest of their lives, blame themselves.
Polio is a lifelong disease that attacks the bones and muscles, and as a result, Marlene had to wear a leg brace. Her mother and granny were concerned that the other kids will treat her differently, so they constantly told her to cover up her brace. She refused. The summers were hot in Wellington and she was not going to get a heat stroke. She was determined to live her life to the fullest and she was not going to let anyone make her feel ashamed. Although she didn’t know it at the time, by stubbornly refusing to cover up her brace, Marlene had already become an activist for the rights and dignity of people living with disabilities.
Marlene says that her youth had been enormously influenced by the community she came from. She grew up poor in a community where everyone was poor. However, despite this pervasive poverty, everyone helped each other and it is this community’s culture or willingness to help that added another layer of compassion to Marlene’s activism. She was especially influenced by her mother who was a factory worker and grandmother who was a farm worker. Despite the harshness of poverty and inhumanity of apartheid, they carried themselves with strength and dignity. There was always laughter and happiness in their home, and they made her believe in her own capacity for excellence.
After matriculating from Bergrivier Secondary High School, Marlene did not have time to sit around and feel sorry for herself. Just like when she refused to cover up her brace, she also refused to let her circumstances dictate what she can and cannot do. She registered at the University of the Western Cape, completing her music degree in 1988, Higher Diploma in Education in 1989, and Bachelor Degree in Education in 1991. At the time, she was the first member of her family that had gone to University.
She also registered at Stellenbosch University, completing a Diploma in Management in 2002 and a Diploma in Senior Management in 2003. In 2016, she was awarded an honourary doctorate in Education by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology for her contribution to the performing arts, education and social transformation.
Marlene is currently the CEO of the Artscape, having occupied that position since 2015. Previously, she was the Director of Audience Development and Education, a position she had held for 14 years. During her time at the Artscape, she became a globally recognized personality because of her commitment to using arts as a tool to bring people together and to promote artists with disabilities. She says that the arts is not just for people who wants to become artists. It is the one area where all critical thinkers such as mathematicians and engineers, learn how to think creatively. Innovative thinking is about creating and the arts (and artists) teaches you how to create. A physicist trying to understand the properties of the universe can be moved to new discoveries by the note on a piano or a line in a play. She does however say that the arts is still seen as elitist and she works tirelessly to change that perception. She is especially passionate about bringing the arts to the rural areas through her rural outreach program.
In addition to her Commonwealth Point of Light award, some of her other awards include the Desmond Tutu Legendary Award, the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year Award in Arts, , Woman of the World Path the Way Award, the Western Cape Provincial Award for Arts and Culture and a French Knighthood in the Performing Arts. She also received CEO Magazine’s award for South Africa’s most Influential Women in Business and Government. She was a member of the Paralympic committee and she served as a Commissioner on the Constitutional Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Cultural and Linguistic Communities. She also helped create the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and of course, she is friends with the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Marlene, who is the mother of Aimee and Adam, says that life owes you nothing and you can either feel sorry for yourself, or you can rise to the challenge. She also believes that no person can do anything on their own and you have to value the people that help you get to where you are. At the Artscape, she talks to everybody from the cleaner to the technicians, asking them about their families and enquiring if they are okay. She talks to them because she values them and knows that every one of them contributes to the success of the Artscape. She also says that growing up poor, she and her community were invisible to the world and she will not let anybody else feel invisible.
What is written above is merely a glimpse into the extraordinary life led by Marlene. The apartheid regime offered her a life of poverty but she refused their offer. She refused to cover up her brace, refused to be poor, and refused to live a life of self-pity. Instead, she became a woman of exceptional worth. She became, the renowned Dr. Marlene le Roux.