State of affairs

Posted on August 31, 2020

“We need to learn to be confident in our own worth and proud of our vast and unique experience.” This is what Political Sciences lecturer Heather Thuynsma has to say to women this Women’s Month. She tells Tukkievaria about her own wealth of experience in the political arena, both in South Africa and the US.

Politics has always played a pivotal role in Heather Thuynsma’s life. A lecturer and postgraduate supervisor in the Department of Political Sciences at UP, she plans to make her mark in the male-dominated political arena and have an impact on the lives of those around her. Thuynsma, who is also the Communications manager in the Humanities Faculty at UP, co-teaches an honours-level course in Comparative Politics.

“We have great fun with this class because it incorporates the Global Classroom, in which our students join others in Les Mans, France, FAAP in Brazil and the University of Akron in the US for a real-time discussion of key political issues. The course won the Faculty of Humanities’ Teaching and Learning Award in 2018,” she says. “I am also completing my PhD at UP. My research explores policies governing the illegal wildlife trade; it’s something I started long before COVID-19.”

Thuynsma was born in the US, where her parents were in exile during apartheid. Her family returned to South Africa 40 years ago, to Umtata (Mthatha) in the Eastern Cape, when her father was appointed in the English Department at what was then known as the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University). The family was meant to stay in the country for only two years, yet years later, they still call South Africa home.

“I finished my schooling in Johannesburg and completed my undergraduate and honours degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, majoring in Politics and International Relations,” Thuynsma says. “After working at the South African Institute of International Affairs, I went to the University of Akron to complete a master’s in Applied Political Sciences. Here, I also worked on political campaigns supporting Democratic candidates, and attended the Women’s Campaign School at Yale Law School to specialise in fundraising and political campaign strategy.”

Having come from a long line of teachers and academics, it is unsurprising that Thuynsma found her place in academia. This wasn’t an easy feat considering that under the apartheid regime, the government largely dictated to people of colour the careers they could choose.

“Under apartheid, coloured people were allowed to train only as teachers, artisans or nurses; my family chose teaching for the most part,” Thuynsma says. “My grandfather was one of the first non-whites to obtain a BA from Unisa and my father holds a PhD from the University of Denver. He also founded the first African Literature department at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s; key academic figures such as Es’kia Mphahlele and Ali Mazrui were regular visitors to our home when I was growing up.”

Her work in politics has spanned two continents, with some of it taking place during South Africa’s 1994 election. “I have worked with political parties across Africa and as a specialist election monitor during South Africa’s 1994 election; I have also published articles on human rights education for the United Nations and on South Africa’s political campaigns and electoral strategy for the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa. In addition, I have edited and contributed to two books, titled Public Opinion and Interest Group Politics: South Africa’s Missing Links? and Political Parties in South Africa: Do They Undermine or Underpin Democracy? I am working on completing a third edited volume called Brittle Democracies? Comparing Politics in Anglophone Africa.”

Thuynsma has also worked extensively in political campaigns in the US, and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the late US Senator Edward Kennedy, an experience she says has stayed with her.

She says the fight for women to rise up the ranks in the world of work can be won by them becoming more confident in their abilities. “Women seem to lack the confidence to assume senior positions – even though we have put in our 10 000 hours plus, we still hesitate before we accept a position we rightfully deserve. We tend to feel as if we have to work even harder to prove, to ourselves, that we are worthy of promotion and/or appointment.”

The achievements of the women in her family have served as an inspiration to her. “They tended to be primary or secondary school teachers and never obtained a university degree,” she says. “The one person I admire (and I know this sounds cliché!) is my mom, who trained as a nurse. As did so many women of her generation, she sacrificed her own aspirations to support my dad’s academic career. She exudes empathy and seeks to support people in any way she can. My mom reminds me what it means to be humble and human. These are qualities I try to emulate every day.”

Thuynsma has this to say to women: “We need to learn to be confident in our own worth, and proud of our vast and unique experience. So know your strengths and let’s nurture them, together!”


- Author Masego Panyane

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