Sahm Venter was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a journalist for more than twenty years, her career focussed on covering the anti-apartheid struggle and South Africa’s transition to democracy. Venter works as the senior researcher at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and she was a member of the editorial team for Nelson Mandela’s bestselling Conversations With Myself. She co-edited 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and co-authored Conversations With a Gentle Soul with the late Ahmed Kathrada. Venter and her partner, Claude Colart, are unofficial guardians of Nomvula Sikhakhane).

Sahm Venter was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.

Q. What really matters to you?

What matters to me is integrity and sincerity.
And I love communication and telling stories; I became a journalist because I wanted to communicate what was happening under apartheid. The highlight of my entire career – the pinnacle – was Nelson Mandela’s release. I was lucky enough to be outside the prison on that day. We waited and waited – it was a very, very hot day – then all of a sudden we saw this grey hair, with a halo behind it, and this fist in the air. It was him! I just stood there. I couldn’t believe that he was finally out. Everything I had witnessed – about people being killed and the horrible violence – all seemed far away.
All these years later, it’s really important that we stay true, as a country and as a world, to the values that we held high at our best moments: democracy, freedom, integrity, humanity, sincerity. These values are all underpinned by humanity. You cannot have a system like apartheid if you have humanity, because apartheid was the absence of humanity, in its crudest form. And human beings kept that system alive – it wasn’t a machine, it was people. We have to always be very true to our values and hold on to the good people in the world. We have to nurture them. And we must make sure that we don’t ever let that spirit die. Too many people forget about those things and get too caught up in materialism in their own lives. They forget too quickly. We have to remember where we come from, and we have to judge where we are now in that context – because we can so easily slip back into the worst moments of our lives if we’re not vigilant.
This needs to happen throughout the world – South Africa’s not the only country in the world that’s ever had bad things happen. Most countries have something terrible in their past or are still experiencing something terrible. We’re all in it together as a human species. We don’t live in isolation, especially not today with all the globalisation; if we had had social media in the past, I don’t know that apartheid would have lasted as long as it did.

Q. What brings you happiness?
I love hearing good news, whether it be about someone I know or someone I don’t know. I like to hear about people’s good news – that things have come together in their lives or in their careers. It can be little or it can be big, but I am so happy when I hear that people are succeeding in what they are trying to do.
For example, I know a family whose mother died. The small children were left behind and their aunt took them in. But she could not get them registered because the mother hadn’t registered their births – and if you aren’t registered, you can’t get access to anything. Quite a lot of effort was put in and – after they had been pushed from pillar to post – all of a sudden they met the right person who sat down with the aunty and said, ‘What surname would you like them to have?’ It all came together and now they exist – they can function in the world. That’s pure happiness.
And I was very happy when Nomvula got accepted into chef’s school; I think we both cried.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Cruelty. It’s extremely difficult to be aware of any type of cruelty, whether it be against women, children, men, animals – any type of life. Cruelty is unspeakable; it should not be tolerated. I can’t even hear about it. In fact, I cannot even listen to news programmes on radio and television about some cruelty that’s happened. I cannot hear it; I have to turn it off or turn it down. When we’re talking about cruelty, we can talk about abuse – physical abuse, emotional abuse – which happens all the time in the world and in this country particularly. It drives me crazy.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would let everybody have equal quality education. Everybody. As a right. Everybody needs to be paid properly for their work; nothing should say that if you’re pulling a big pile of recycling around you shouldn’t get enough money to live in a house with electricity, water and food. Everybody should have free and easy access to good-quality social services. And there should be no national borders, so people could move around the world wherever they want and just settle down, raise their families and be happy.
We’re not there yet with gender equality, either: not just in South Africa, but in the world. Women are still second-class citizens, and I don’t really see all that much change, here or anywhere else. Some countries can be held up as beacons because they’ve got really special laws and have been at it longer than we have, but South Africa is a deeply sexist society. The slogan always used to be ‘Fighting for a non-racial democratic South Africa,’ then some people added ‘a non-sexist South Africa.’ Ours is a very patriarchal society. I’m talking about in every sphere of life, including corporates. I recently had conversations with women who believed that it was okay for some big corporates in this country to tell women how to dress. I was completely shocked. I thought, ‘Try and make me wear heels, and I will go to the Constitutional Court.’ Because it’s insane.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Gratitude. I am very grateful for my life: my family, my friends, my car, my job, my house, my roof, my hot water, my electricity. And for the fact that I am able to help people from time to time.


  • Title: Sahm Venter
  • Creator: Blackwell & Ruth
  • Date Created: 2017
  • Location Created: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Original Source: 200 Women
  • Rights: Blackwell and Ruth Limited
  • Photographer: Image copyright (c) Kieran. E. Scott

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