Women climbing to great heights in nature conservation
Cape Town - OWNING and operating a business that is focused on nature conservation is no walk in the park and for Thandeka Mayiji-Rafu it means climbing steep mountains.
Born and raised in Joburg, but with her familial roots in Willowvale in the Eastern Cape, today Mayiji-Rafu owns Likhonalethu Projects and works with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) a global environmental group based in the USA.
Mayiji-Rafu leads teams of mostly women who clear alien vegetation in the Western Cape. With experience working as a contractor for SA National Parks (SANParks), CapeNature and the City of Cape Town, Mayiji-Rafu said it wasn’t a straight forward path to conservation management for her.
“I started out working in a hotel and then studied social work via Unisa but never completed because of financial issues. As time went on I started looking for other things to do and I was introduced to SANParks, at Table Mountain. They were looking for contractors so I started working with them as a contractor doing alien vegetation clearing, this was in 2010.”
Almost ten years later, when TNC was looking for contractors, Mayiji-Rafu made sure she threw her hat into the ring and she was successful. She said: “I started working with them for the flat areas and then they introduced the paths of working up in the mountains, so I took the chance and said yes. They introduced it and asked who was interested.”
While International Women’s Day is observed tomorrow, Mayiji-Rafu continues to scale mountain slopes and abseil the rugged terrain to get the job of clearing the alien vegetation done.
She said at the moment they were working outside of Cape Town: “I have two teams, we are working outside Villiersdorp and Franschhoek by the Theewaterskloof Dam. Last week we had to rescue our people out of the area because of the fire, so you must be ready at any time to rescue your team.”
She added: “We are clearing alien vegetation, mostly pine and also black wattle. It’s not an easy job. You have to use the ropes and make sure it is anchored correctly, someone has to double check before you go down and the areas are quite steep so it needs a lot of concentration to do this job.”
The risk and rewards are great in equal measure and Mayiji-Rafu said it’s all about having the right people for the job.
“At the moment it is quite difficult because, for starters, you have to make sure that when you select people who are going to work there they have to be physically and mentally fit and they understand the risk that they can be exposed to. They must also not be afraid of heights.”
This is not a job to be taken on lightly but she said women were equal to the task: “Women can conquer anything. I have been working in this industry for quite some time and when things are tough the men run away, then you will remain with the women.”
But the fruits of their labour is easy to see and rewarding.
“We are making a difference, when we clear those areas, we are helping out with water scarcity in Cape Town because those plants are taking a lot of water from the ground and we clear the area so the water can run down to the streams.”