Born in 1932, Irene Menell (nee Manderstam) spent her early life moving from one place to the next, completing her primary and secondary schooling in the United Kingdom (UK), Switzerland, and South Africa. After matriculating in 1949 at Kingsmead College in Johannesburg, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng), she enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952 and followed up with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1954. While at university, her leadership qualities started blossoming as she served for two years on the Student Representative Council (SRC) and several committees (acting as chairperson of many of them) both on and off campus.
In 1954, Menell married mining executive, Clive Menell, and the couple went on to have five children together. Although she did not pursue her professional career throughout her children’s early years, she did, however, remain actively involved in issues that faced society through various community projects and politics.
At a time when it was unusual for someone from the privileged White class to interact with others across the racial barrier, Menell and her husband ignored the norm and built relationships with people across all races and classes. Through this, they played an important role in helping to bridge the gap and create a more united South Africa.
Menell was a founder member of the Liberal Party (LP) and was active in its Western Cape formations during her university years. Following the party’s closure, she joined the then Progressive Party (PP) and held numerous elected positions at national, regional, and constituency levels within the party and its successors. From 1981 to 1986, Menell was the deputy chairperson of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) caucus as well as chief spokesperson for the party on administrative matters and hospital services in Gauteng.
Menell spent more than 25 years under the late Helen Suzman, working as a manager for Suzman’s Houghton constituency in Johannesburg where she was exposed to the injustices of apartheid. From 1962 until Suzman’s retirement from Parliament in 1989, Menell was largely responsible for the efficient administration of the constituency party offices. In honour of Suzman’s immense contribution to South African politics, Menell initiated the publication of a collection of essays titled, Values Alive, which was presented to Suzman in 1990.
When the 1976 Soweto Uprisings took place, Menell helped set up the Soweto Mayor’s Children’s Fund which functioned as a crisis intervention resource for traumatised children in the township. In 1977, she again was instrumental in the establishment of the Urban Foundation which she used to advance education among Black children. Among other things, the foundation was concerned with housing, urban development, and education in Black townships. Menell also took part in a bridging programme for gifted Black matriculants as well as a community upgrade project in Orlando East, Soweto, Gauteng.
In 1979, Menell became a founding member (and in 1983, the chairperson) of the national committee of the READ Educational Trust where she steered efforts of the national literacy programme towards assisting the marginalised. Through the literacy initiative, Menell strove to improve the standard of education among Black learners – she organised resources to help train educators and set up facilities for a more conducive learning environment, for example.
Under Menell’s leadership, READ established more than two thousand libraries in schools, community resource centres and colleges, and provided training for more than 200 000 learners and educationists. Over the years, the organisation also expanded its reach to teenagers who could not read or write properly and to teachers who lacked adequate training, thus providing a significant contribution to basic educational needs in the country.
In addition to serving as a trustee and executive member of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, Menell has also served as the UCT’s chairperson of the board of trustees, the treasurer of the Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB), a member of the Broadcasting Monitoring and Complaints Committee of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, a director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, and was the founding executive director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA), which is concerned with various human rights issues. Alongside her husband, she was responsible for the American Field Service Student Exchange Programme in South Africa.
Outside of politics and development, Menell also shares a passion for the arts. Between 1957 and 1958, Menell and her husband played a significant role in the creation and production of South Africa’s first all-Black musical, King Kong, which was performed in 1959 and is widely recognised as a key event in African jazz history. Furthermore, it was during this time that Menell first met Mandela.
She served as the chairperson of the Market Theatre Foundation and was part of the formation of the Johannesburg Arts Foundation (JAF), a community art centre that provided recreational and professional training to the public. She was also a founder trustee of the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA), and a trustee of the Afrika Cultural Trust and patron of the youth development organisation, Afrika Tikkun.
Menell selflessly dedicated more than fifty years of her life to the betterment of those marginalised by the oppressive apartheid regime, promoting non-racialism, democracy, human rights, and education. She has contributed to various sectors in South African society – from politics, education, and the arts, to community development, poverty alleviation, and philanthropy. However, it is her passion for education, particularly for Black learners, that stands out as one of her greatest contributions. During the height of apartheid, Menell boldly stood up against the regime and pioneered literacy initiatives aimed at disadvantaged Black children.
In 2009, the South African Government conferred the National Order of the Baobab in Silver for her community service and commitment to empowering Black youth through education. Additionally, the University of the Witwatersrand awarded her the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.
- Nelson Mandela Foundation. (2017). Foundation says farewell to a long-serving mentor, [online], Available at: https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/foundation-says-farewell-to-a-long-serving-mentor. (Accessed on 02 December 2020)
- The Presidency. (n.d). Irene Menell (1932 - ), [online], Available at: http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/irene-menell-1932. (Accessed on 02 December 2020)
- Wits University. (n.d). Irene Menell, [online], Available at: https://www.wits.ac.za/media/wits-university/alumni/documents/honorary-degree-citations/Irene%20Menell.pdf. (Accessed on 02 December 2020)