100912. TV personality Masingita Masunga. 585 Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

The London Paralympics helped to ‘define ability over and above disability’, its organising chief, Sebastian Coe, said recently. TV personality Masingita Masunga is a shining example of what he means.

Johannesburg - Within five minutes of our sitting down at an alfresco eatery in Sandton, a fan walks up to Masingita Masunga. He recognises her from her TV talk show Masingita With Confidence, broadcast on Soweto TV, and greets her as though he knows her well. She is friendly and full of smiles, shaking his hand.

“Is he a friend?” I ask. “No, but he watches my show,” she replies, her speech stilted, mouthed with difficulty but with unwavering confidence.

That she was born with cerebral palsy – the tragic consequence of a lack of oxygen during her birth at a clinic in rural Giyani – is completely incidental, to Masunga at least. At 33, she’s as accomplished and self-assured as any of her contemporaries.

She presents her own TV show, manages her own media company, Masingita Masunga Media, and is also an inspirational speaker at schools and churches, most recently, at the Disability Conference held at the Sandton Convention Centre. For 10 years, she was the chief executive officer of the Miss Confidence Beauty Pageant, the only beauty pageant for people with physical disabilities.

Her hand gestures are slightly unco-ordinated at times (cerebral palsy affects parts of the brain that control muscle movements), but that doesn’t prevent her driving, alone, all over Joburg. None of it came easily, though. In fact, getting a driving licence was one of Masunga’s greatest challenges. “It took me eight years to master the skill of driving,” she laughs.

She also failed matric twice at her high school in Tshwane, “because of my handwriting”.

Breaking social taboos and changing attitudes towards people with disabilities – even with the help of events like the London Paralympics – is no easy task. The statistics say it all. Of the five million disabled people in SA, less than one percent (50 000 people) have a proper job, according to the South African Disability Alliance.

For Masunga, however, the challenge belongs as much to people with disabilities as to those without.

“The world is not ‘special’ for you because you are disabled, so you have to get used to that. I encourage disabled people to take on ordinary, everyday challenges, not to seek out schools or facilities that cater only to disability.

“When you’re finished at a special school, where will you go to study further? There are no special needs tertiary institutions. It might be harder to succeed, but sooner or later, you have to function in the real world.”

Masunga’s Miss Confidence beauty pageant was all about this personal philosophy.

“Even though it was for women with disabilities, the format was the same as for Miss South Africa, except there wasn’t a swimsuit segment. The women were judged on beauty, personality, intelligence and presentation… it came down to how comfortable they were in their own skins,” she says.

Unfortunately, although it was a popular contest that started modestly in Newtown and ended up with a final pageant at Emperors Palace in 2008, Masunga could not raise enough sponsorship to keep it going. “I ended up tapping my own resources. But I loved it while it lasted. I just wanted to inspire women, to give them confidence. I’m a self-esteem teacher, and a social entrepreneur,” she smiles.

Discipline is at the core of Masunga’s success. She wakes up at 4.20am every day. A friend picks her up at the home she shares with her two brothers in Ridgeway, south of Joburg, and they go to the 5am prayer service at the Grace Bible Church in Soweto.

Normally, she heads for the gym after that, though she admits she hasn’t been of late.

“I love to keep fit. People with disabilities have lifestyles like any able-bodied person,” she says. Being self-employed, she controls her day’s schedule, which is busy, as her company offers TV production (including her own show), exhibitions, conferencing and publishing.

Back at home in Giyani, one of SA’s poorest rural villages, Masunga supports a social upliftment organisation called Fihliwa, providing food and clothing to about 15 disadvantaged teenagers and funding them as they learn arts and crafts. “I recently had these kids in Joburg, staying in my and my friend’s houses. For some of them, it was the first time they’d ever seen running water!”

Masunga also loves travelling – she’s been to the US (as a speaker at a leadership conference), London, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Lesotho – and wants to do a lot more of it. She reads a lot too, and has just completed The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by William Kamkwamba. Does she have a boyfriend? “No, not yet,” she smiles.

Diminutive, casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with sandals, Masunga looks younger than her years. It’s hard to comprehend that she fits so much into her life. But it’s abundantly clear what drives her. She brims over with enthusiasm and passion, even when talking about her setbacks. “I’m inspired by the human spirit, by the resilience in people to overcome. I don’t confine myself to disability, and I’ll try anything new, even if I might fail at it.”

What makes her day is when someone’s life has been turned around because of her talk show, which engages people from all walks of life about their daily issues. “One woman told me her domestic worker had gone back to school after she watched my show. That made me very happy.”

The waiter clears our table. He recognises Masunga too. Is it sometimes an invasion, I ask her. “Yes, sometimes people are a bit insensitive and invasive, but at the end of the day, I love people, so I don’t mind.”

As she walks off to her car, with a slightly faltering gait, the waiter asks me, ‘Does she drive by herself?’

“Yes. Of course,” I reply. - The Star