Women's Month Interview

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[WomeninBiz] Diving over the Digital Edge: Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl & Miss Milli B

This year's Digital Edge speaker line-up is impressive. As it's #WomensMonth, we spoke to two of this year's female speakers, each inspiring in their own way...

Take Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl, the medical doctor who uses social media and digital technology to share health-related knowledge - so much so that she aims to create an HIV-free generation by imparting knowledge that empowers patients and health workers.

Then there's Milisuthando Bongela, AKA 'Miss Milli B' the writer, blogger and consultant behind fashion and culture blog www.missmillib.co.za, which has been involved in collaborative work with local and international publications including Dazed and Confused, Colours and W Magazine.

Dr Sindi van Zyl and Miss Milli B
Dr Sindi van Zyl and Miss Milli B

Who better to share some insights into how all things digital have changed life as we know it? But first, their views on the effectiveness of Women's Month...

1. Is enough done to celebrate women in Women's Month?

Van Zyl: Over the years, the real reason why we celebrate Women's Month seems to have been lost on us. I am beginning to feel as if everyone wants to say something during this month and tick all the right boxes. We can see through that insincerity. We need to somehow come back to the cause for this celebration.

Bongela: I'm not a huge fan of Women's Month. Its premise, the main reason for its existence, relies on the inequalities and injustices that women face on an institutional, social and an emotional level. In an ideal society, there wouldn't be Women's Day because women wouldn't need to dismantle patriarchy. Marketers and advertisers have co-opted it and continue to make viral marketing blunders to prove just how little they understand the complexities of women's issues in South Africa. I think we should do away with it and instead develop a programme that encompasses research, interaction and implementation of policies that work with, on an institutional level, the existing network of organisations that understand gender disparities. We also need to develop a new language and lexicon about writing about women, telling stories about women and marketers could be instrumental in changing gender perceptions from the ground up in this regard. Then we would have something to celebrate. Women don't need to be celebrated, they need to be given equal opportunities to do with their lives what they want.

2. Hear, hear. So, does a 'glass ceiling' exist in your industry?

Van Zyl: The medical fraternity is like an old boys' club. We have a large number of female medical doctors but there are some fields and specialities that are still male-dominated. The struggle for us is more around making our mark in those fields than breaking through a 'glass ceiling'. My particular struggles are around being a black female medical doctor. We still face our own set of challenges in the field.

Bongela: I'm a writer and a collaborator so no, there is no ceiling for as long as there are stories to be told, especially because my medium is digital.

3. Let's link Women's Month to Digital Edge: How can females most benefit from digital innovation?

Van Zyl: Keeping up-to-date with the latest health information. Women's health, children's health and sexual health have benefited immensely from digital innovation. Women can now access valuable and lifesaving information at their fingertips.

Bongela: By being at the centre of their own narratives, by writing themselves, their female selves, into existence in places that are male dominated.

Scene set, we delved into all things digital...

4. Let's focus more on the importance of digital - is there anything you can think of that doesn't benefit from digital/tech innovation?

Van Zyl: Nothing at all. Everything has changed.

Bongela: Probably cats, shame, they don't even know that the Internet exists and that they are super famous on it!

5. Explain the concept of digital storytelling, the backbone of any marketing today.

Bongela: Digital storytelling is citizen journalism 'on fleek', as the internet would say. It's the hyper-democratisation of information, culture, ideologies, conversations, trends and news. It's the 21st Century version of the fireside story told by a village elder, except there are millions of cyphers from which to choose. As a story teller, I'm more into marketing ideas, concepts and ways of complicating existing narratives than selling products and my blog has led to myriad opportunities for conversations that start out at dinner or as pillow talk, to reach audiences around the world. Digital storytelling is an indispensible form of spreading information in the 21st Century and what drives the development of cultural and social trends, which influences the products that people desire and ultimately buy. Without a narrative, an inanimate object stands no chance in touching people.

6. List the three digital innovations that have changed your life.

Van Zyl: Twitter - this is really where my "online medicine" started in 2011. When I joined Twitter I had no idea what to expect or what to do. A friend gave me a great analogy: 'Twitter is like being at a huge party. There are groups of people having different conversations all over the place. You are flitting from one group to the other and if a conversation interests you, you stop and interact and once you are done you move on to the next group'. He also advised me to "just do you". My biggest strength is my ability to take medical information and share it in a meaningful and easy-to-understand way. That is what I do on Twitter. The impact that this has had on people's lives and my life is immeasurable.

Qooh.me - a QnA platform created by Vincent Mabuza from Hazyview, Mpumalanga. This platform has enabled me to reach thousands of people with the latest and correct HIV information. It is great because it allows you to ask me questions anonymously. It has been life-changing.

Facebook - I was invited to join a closed group on Facebook. This group has just over 200 members and they are all living with HIV. It's a safe place to again share the correct information and talk about everyday struggles. Living with HIV is no longer a death sentence but it is still a challenge for many. This group provides comfort, especially for those women that have not disclosed their HIV statuses to anyone.

Bongela: The old Blogspot, Whatsapp and the FNB app.

7. Is SA - and the rest of the continent - on par when it comes to global digital innovation? Share your thoughts!

Bongela: I don't think SA and the rest of the continent should be doing what we're always doing, comparing and always playing catch up to what's going on globally. Because our joys and sorrows are unique to the rest of the world, so will our solutions to our problems be unique. I think once we understand and practice that approach, we stand a better chance of offering the world solutions to problems they didn't even know they had. M-pesa and eWallet are cases in point - our technology and digital innovations are influenced by the Africans' unique demands. We also shouldn't try to ape Europe or America or Asia - work with them yes, take an interest in what they are doing sure, but our focus should be on how to build innovative ideas using our unique set of circumstances. Our strongest asset has always been the varied narratives that can be produced through music, literature, art and ideas. Technological innovations don't start out as inanimate objects, they are born from the need to find solutions to problems.

8. Who are your personal inspirations/mentors?

Van Zyl: My late mother Rita Nonhlanhla Mahamba-Sithole. She was my biggest cheerleader and made sure that I understood and believed that I could do anything that I had set my heart on.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is my other heroine. One of my dreams is to meet her in real life.

Bongela: I have a lot of people whose work I admire, this year's special guest speaker Spike Lee is among them, but I don't have mentors, more like people I occasionally check in with. My career has no model that it is built on.

9. Who's getting it right in terms of digital at the moment?

Bongela: The big guns - Netflix, FNB, Uber, Amazon, iTunes.

10. What are you most looking forward to from Digital Edge Live?

Van Zyl: Meeting people that work outside of my field. It is always exciting to meet new different people! I hope to take a selfie with Spike Lee! I love selfies!

Bongela: Having an audience with the great Spike Lee. I've seen 18 of his 25 films and he is my favourite story-teller through film.

Seems the Spike Lee excitement is a common point no matter your specialty. Click here for more on this year's Nedbank Digital Edge Live line-up, taking place on 9 September 2015 at the Sandton Convention Centre. Visit http://www.thedigitaledge.co.za/ to secure your booking.

About Leigh Andrews

Leigh Andrews AKA the #MilkshakeQueen, is former Editor-in-Chief: Marketing & Media at Bizcommunity.com, with a passion for issues of diversity, inclusion and equality, and of course, gourmet food and drinks! She can be reached on Twitter at @Leigh_Andrews.

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