Climbers begin the tricky descent back down from Sterk Horn in the Monk’s Cowl nature reserve in the Central Drakensberg, with a sheer drop to the valley floor off to their left. Picture: Kevin Ritchie
The centenary edition of Trek4Mandela is literally preparing for take-off. On Thursday July 12, a group of 50 climbers, support staff and media will leave OR Tambo International Airport for Dar es Salaam and from there to Kilimanjaro International Airport in a bid to summit Africa’s highest peak on July 18 - what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.

It’s a high point in a seven-year journey for Richard Mabaso, the founder of Imbumba Foundation which runs Trek4Mandela and Caring4Girls, the two interlinked charities with one aim - to ensure that menstruation can never be an excuse for girls to miss school.

Mabaso conceived the idea of raising awareness for the campaign by climbing Kilimanjaro on Mandela’s birthday every year, on Christmas Day in 2011. On July 18, 2012, he did it with his friend and long-time collaborator, Everest hero Sibusiso Vilane.

Vilane will be leading this year’s expedition and the one next month on Women’s Day which Trek4Mandela has organised to meet the demand among first-time climbers who want to tick their bucket list and do something worthwhile at the same time.

Mabaso has set himself a target of leading 100 climbers to Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak by July next year; by the end of August, if all goes well, he will have managed to get 67 to the top, another important number on the Mandela calendar.

It’s a big group that will leave for Tanzania in July, the biggest yet, which is why the training has been even longer and tougher than in previous years - with three mandatory local hikes in Suikerbosrand outside Heidelberg and three trips to the picturesque, though gruelling, Monk’s Cowl nature reserve in the Drakensberg.

“We wanted the climbers to get to know each other. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not only about individual effort, but team spirit too, practising ubuntu - that we are because of each other,” he says.

The over-arching drive, though, is always about the girls. Each climber - by virtue of their climb - will support 100 schoolgirls for an entire year, but four of the 2018 class of climbers have already far exceeded that target.

“Vickey Ganesh, known as 'Super Vic' to the group, was the first to raise and beat R100000; Mags Natasen was second, followed by ‘Queen D’ Dikeledi Dlwati and Angela Yeung. They did this through using their networks and getting donations from their friends,” says Mabaso.

“It’s always inspiring that they're not just ticking a bucket-list moment, but making a real difference to the lives of girls who need it most. Each one of them will support 1000 girls for the whole of next year because of what they have raised.”

For Ganesh, in particular, it wasn’t just about climbing Kilimanjaro - he’s summited twice already - but this time he wanted to do it for a cause. He’ll climb other mountains, hopefully Everest in 2020, when Vilane leads his all-Africa team to the world’s highest peak.


To reward the four, Mabaso held mini-activations at the schools of their choice; for Ganesh, it was back in KwaZulu-Natal where he grew up, while Dlwati had a presentation of sanitary pads at a school in Kroonstad and another in Gauteng. Yeung returned to Botshabelo, outside Bloemfontein, where she had spent her first years as a schoolchild in South Africa - surprising climbers and staff alike with her command of Sesotho. Natasen’s activation will be held at a deserving school in northern KZN before the group departs for Kilimanjaro.

“It was important to do this,” explains Mabaso, “to reward these climbers who were the first to achieve their targets and to inspire the others. We will go back after Kili to these schools with these climbers, but the fact that they have gone there first will make the climb even more special because the purpose has now become personal; they’ve met the recipients and they will meet them again at the bigger distribution.”

It’s not just the climbers who contribute, there are corporate partners, too, who sponsor entire schools for a year. But the single biggest collector of sanitary pads without any doubt is the Dis-Chem Foundation, which has been running its so-called "Million Comforts" campaign since Mabaso first approached Dis-Chem CEO Lynette Saltzman in 2015.

The aim then was to get customers at the nation-wide pharmacy group to donate a million packs of sanitary pads. The drive exceeded everyone’s expectations.

This year, more than 2 million packs were donated in the first week-and-a-half of the campaign, which runs until the end of July. Nobody is putting a target on the final amount, for fear of jinxing it, but hopes are this could be the best year yet.

For Saltzman, the success of the campaign has been built on three pillars: the essential need for such a campaign; the simplicity of it, buying in-store, paying for the pads and dropping them in the bin; and the enthusiasm of the Dis-Chem staff themselves.

“When Richard first came to me with this concept, I was unaware of the problem; in my naiveté, I thought that women just got by without using disposable sanitary towels. In our stores, though, we have people - on the tills and working as merchandisers - who either grew up without access to disposable sanitary towels, or knew women who had to make do. It is these people in the front line who have been encouraging our customers to take part in this initiative.

“We’ve had some customers coming and buying many packs just to donate.”


Trek4Mandela climber Dikeledi Dlwati stops at a stream on the Little Berg escarpment in the Monk’s Cowl nature reserve to refill her water bottle and drink. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

The initiative has also been helped by sanitary towel manufacturers coming on board and pledging to donate on a one-for-one basis for every one of their products bought, while Dis-Chem has provided its own house brand sanitary towel and kept the price under R10.

The climbers will be going out to Dis-Chem stores across the country this weekend to encourage shoppers to donate sanitary pads and, on Monday, Trek4Mandela will launch its Mandela month activation to motorists at the Shell Ultra City on the N1 north between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“We’ve helped more than 360000 girls in over 450 schools since we began the project,” says Mabaso. “The girls receive pads for a year, either quarterly, three times a year or twice, depending on the school and prospective sponsors. The first time we do the distribution, we educate the girls through our Puberty Training Facilitator, Phumzile Magudulela, and hold workshops to educate the boys.

"We’re looking for corporate sponsors to come in and adopt schools through their corporate social investment budgets in other provinces because some of our greatest problems are logistical - actually getting the pads to outlying areas where we are not based," says Mabaso.

“We continue to remind people that Trek4Mandela is an event to encourage them to be like Madiba, to think of others. “To those who want to help, but can't get hold of us, we say: ‘Go and buy pads and donate them to your local school.'

“Each one of us can do our little bit to help create a better, more caring world, by ensuring that even one girl has the chance to finish her school career without missing a day because of the shame associated with not being able to properly manage her monthly period.

“I’m always humbled and inspired by the response from the South African public. Some people even take their last R10 to donate a single pack; but, if that helps a single girl, then it has all been worth it.”

For more about Trek4Mandela or to donate towards Caring4Girls, contact Nkateko Mabale on email: [email protected] or call: +27(0)11883 0379 or +27662142520