By Fatima Cele and Solomon Makgale
Judith Khethiwe Madi, a well-known deaf activist and CEO of Neema Foundation for the Deaf, passed away at the end of last month after a short illness.
She had been briefly hospitalised on two separate occasions in as many months. Confirming her passing to friends, colleagues and the broader Deaf community has been a painful and difficult undertaking because of the love and respect the community had for her.
There were no signs that Judith was critically ill. She was hospitalised for several days and was discharged towards the end of February. She was fine and we carried on with the business of what she cared passionately about: working for the Deaf community.
A couple of days later, she texted to inform us that she was unwell and that the doctor has decided to admit her again.
From then onwards, her condition deteriorated until she passed on.
We met Judith around 2015. At the time, inspired by deafness in the family, we had an idea of advocating for the deaf community.
Several institutions and some prominent people in the deaf community shut the door on us until we met Judith.
She patiently listened to our idea of improving access for the deaf community and it turned out that she had been looking for a way to work with hearing people to promote South African Sign Language (SASL) in the hearing community.
Our dream and her vision collided fortuitously.
Out of this interaction, the #SilentWalk & Run event was birthed. The event involves both deaf and hearing people taking part in a 5km and 10km course featuring safety messages that incorporate sign language to encourage participants to learn SASL at regular intervals.
After serving the deaf community for 16 years through DeafSA, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), she decided to follow her dream.
She left the comfort of a guaranteed monthly salary behind to co-found an NGO to serve her community. She led the establishment of Neema Foundation for the Deaf in 2017 and became its CEO.
For us as hearing people, Judith was our guide into the deaf world, culture and Sign Language. Over the years, we engaged with Judith mainly through text, occasionally in meetings with the assistance of an interpreter or sometimes face to face as she could lip-read and vocalize. This is probably because, from birth, Judith could hear but lost her hearing permanently at the age of eight as a result of meningitis.
Although it was difficult at first to transition to life as a deaf person, Judith never allowed her deafness to stop her from achieving her dreams.
From an early age, Judith wanted to participate in beauty pageants, but could not do so because the competitions did not permit deaf people to enter.
She never gave up on that dream and was crowned Ms Deaf South Africa for 2019.
Judith was a networker and a dedicated activist. She was known in government and disability sector circles for her passion. She fought hard for the inclusion of deaf people into mainstream society.
She also wanted the to be included in conversations around other social issue such as conflicts in homes, gender based violence, and sexual abuse that are also challenges in the deaf community.
Even in death, Judith Madi reminded us yet again the importance of us hearing people to not just be sensitive to the deaf community but to learn sign language too.
When visiting doctors and other public spaces like police stations, banks and traffic departments, deaf people who cannot find a trusted interpreter to accompany them, have to write things down in order to get help.
We can all imagine how difficult it would be having to discuss your medical issues with your doctor, in the presence of non-medical staff. Judging from the unintelligible texts she sent us a week or so before her passing, it was clear she was having difficulty communicating with medical staff in her deteriorating condition.
Undoubtedly, Judith’s departure is a huge loss to the deaf community. She was as astute leader, a motivational speaker and mentor. She refused to remain silent and wanted, especially the government and business, not to be deaf to the plight of those who cannot not hear.
We will remember her irresistible optimism, confidence, intelligence, sense of humour and patience when teaching us about deaf issues. True to her name; Khethiwe, she was indeed the chosen one for this task and she did it well.
Most importantly and above all else, Judith was a mother to Mbuso and Mabusi and an older sister to Nomthandazo, Lindiwe and Ntombini. Our most heartfelt condolences to them all. They have suffered the greatest loss and we hope that while grieving as deeply as they are, the pain will become easier to bear as time goes on.
Go well Judith. We will always miss you.
Fatima Cele is a Director at Neema Foundation for Deaf and Solomon Makgale is a volunteer at the Foundation.