Dancing Queen

Whilst 2009 was not the best year for many of us, for Thuli Matlala it was a cracker of a year. “2009 was amazing.

It was my year,” she gusts.Thuli’s enthusiasm is contagious. The pretty 29 year-old has a bubbly personality that immediately draws you to her and her positive energy.This is part of what led to her being awarded with the No1 CEO Barloworld Award at the end of last year, an international award of the company for an employee who has gone beyond the call of duty.“I was really surprised that I was the one to receive the award. When I got through the first stage I was already really pleased, but when I won the award... it was fantastic.

”Thuli started at Barloworld in 2005 as a switchboard operator. A year later she was promoted to the position of Corporate Social Investment (CSI) Officer. Here she has found her niche she says.“I am loving every moment of it. For me it is complete fulfilment as I interact with people and, through this, am able to impact on their live. Even if I am grumpy on a particular day, I look at what I do every day and I feel better because I have touched someone’s life. I am home. I am happy.”

As a disability ambassador for Barloworld, she has assisted the company in being a leader in catering for people with disabilities throughout all the company’s divisions.From the beginning Barloworld was open to ensuring that it complied not only with the legislation around disability, such as building accessibility, but was willing to go the extra mile says Thuli.“

The company did not just employ me and then say, ‘well that’s that. We have done our bit, there is our disability quota done.’ Instead they came to me and asked me to educate them and help them to work with people with disabilities. “This attitude of the company was clear in 2007 when, as part of its Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) deal, people with disabilities were given a stake in the company. “That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of our commitment to disability,”

Thuli points out. “From accessibility to sensitising its employees, Barloworld not only listened, but took it a step further.”The company is part of the Employees Forum for Disability, launching later this year. Thuli is a co-ordinator of the Forum. “Apart from Barloworld big companies such as Total and Absa make up the forum. These companies all do a lot for disability. Through the Forum we hope to show other companies what can be done and that they will follow their examples.“Disability is not just about percentages, but empowering people with disabilities on a sustainable level that allows them to contribute to the country’s economy and make them economically independent.“When you become disabled, your life gets delayed and you have to then Thuli was a dancer when she was hit by a stray bullet – changing her life forever.work hard to overcome that gap.

I was lucky as I filled the gap in a relatively short space of time.”In 2001, after being crowned 2nd Princess in Miss Confidence, she went to Denmark and studied there. “I returned and worked for a United States company in their call centre. It was hard work. We had to undergo accent training so that Americans calling could understand us. It also involved weird hours and some very difficult customers. But it had its fun moments. Some customers calling would ask if we were operating from in the trees – their idea of Africa. We would play along and tell them yes because the lions are lying under the tree.”The work experience proved invaluable.

“When I started as the switchboard operator at Barloworld, people would apologise for being a difficult caller. I would just laugh, telling them they had no idea what difficult was.”Thuli’s journey as a paraplegic began when she was 15 years old waiting outside her local community hall to perform as a dancer in a pageant. A gun fight broke out. Everyone ran, including Thuli. An electric shock ripped through her body and she fell to the ground. She had been shot.

Minutes ticked by, and no ambulance appeared so she was loaded into the back of a teacher’s car. “I was bleeding a lot and I would not have survived if we had waited for the ambulance. When I was in the back of the teacher’s car, I was so uncomfortable and asked them to stop to move me off my back. When they did, they saw that the bullet had lodged itself in my spine.”She was in hospital and rehab for three months. At first Thuli had no idea of what had happened to her. “During my first week in the hospital I asked the nurse if I could get up and go for a walk outside as I desperately wanted some fresh air. She just stared at me and told me not to move until the doctor came to see me. It was only then that I was told that I had lost my mobility.”Intense counselling followed. “I had an amazing psychologist and I still adhere to what she told me: ‘You are in this situation, so you know what is best for you. But it is also up to you. You have to learn to live with your disability.’ So I am in these boots and I know how hot they can get.”Going home was not easy. “Everyone was there to welcome me home. It was fine, until later when they started dancing. I sat there, and looked at them doing the thing I loved the most, dancing, and I broke down. I sat with my mom and said, ‘I cannot do this’.”She was up one day and down the next. Eventually she had what she calls her mental spring-cleaning day. “I had two choices: live my life or not. Since then I have the energy to face the challenges presented to me.”She says that in a way her disability is a blessing as it involves her in things she would otherwise not have thought about; such as the disability element Thuli has brought into Barloworld; and working with APD.

“I would drive pass Hope School to attend meetings at the APD offices. One day I saw a learner there. She had a lovely smile and reminded me of myself. So I would pick her up in my spare time and take her out to movies. I wanted to show her that there is a life out there no matter who you are.”“People with disabilities need role models who live in the world. Children with disabilities need to be integrated into the world. So many of us attend a special school and then when we go out into the world we battle. We need to educate our children so they can enter the open labour market with confidence and good self-esteem.”She believes it is important that people socialise in the right circles. “I hang around optimistic people. You have had so much taken away from you that you do not need to be with negative people.“You must decide within yourself if you can live with yourself in this condition. You must accept yourself first, within yourself, and then you must live it. Only when you have truly accepted who you are, can you go into the world.”

Portraits from the heart

We have Andre Goosen, founder and senior Photographer of Studio2 Photography, and National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities in South Africa (NCPPDSA) to thank for our stunning cover picture of the beautiful Thuli.Andre explained how the shoot came about. “I originally placed a notice on my Facebook profile that for every 100 fans I would give away one free photo shoot. It was by chance that the NCPPDSA contacted me during that period.

”Here, however the story takes a different path as help-portrait.com then entered the picture. Help-portrait.com is a global initiative where a photographer does a photo shoot for a cause close to his or her heart. The photos are printed and then handed to the cause. “The day allocated for this 12 December and all across the world, photographers give of their time and equipment and take pictures for people who might never own a picture of themselves.”Andre decided that the NCPPDSA calendar would be his help-portrait.com project. “I am so glad I did,” he says. “The girls were great and their stories touched me - their bravery and the challenges they faced every day. I learnt so many lessons from them.”Our exquisite cover photo is a reject, not considered good enough for the NCPPDSA 2011 calendar! The calendar features a different person with a disability for each month of the year. Information on NCPPDSA’s calendar will be found on the later this year. To see more of Andre’s work go to  or search for Studio2 Photography on Facebook.

Columnist Photos