Irene Menell (1932 - )
The Order of the Baobab in
Profile of Irene Menell
Irene Menell was born in 1932. For over 50 years, she committed herself to the service of humanity by promoting democracy, equal education, human rights and non-racialism. In this regard, Menell made a significant contribution to different spectrums of South African society, including politics, education, community development, poverty-alleviation, philanthropy and the arts.
Her passion for education, especially among black learners, remains one of her greatest legacies. She stood up to be counted during the height of apartheid and fearlessly, pioneered literacy initiatives for the benefit of disadvantaged black children. At the time when it was uncommon for members of the privileged white class to relate with others across the race barrier, she and her husband initiated countless relationships with people across all races and classes.
Through these efforts, she contributed towards creating a united South Africa where diverse people live together in harmony. She continues to focus on developmental issues that affect the country.
In 1979 she became the founding chairperson of READ, steering the national literacy programme to greater heights through many successes that proved beneficial to the marginalized. Through this literacy initiative, Menell sought to improve the standard of education among black learners. She mobilised resources to help train educators and established facilities for an enabling learning environment.
Under her leadership, READ established more than 2 000 schools and community libraries while training over 200 000 educationists and learners on the use of books as educational tools. Over the years, the organisation expanded its reach to teenagers who could neither read nor write properly, as well as teachers with inadequate training.
Menell’s service to the people is rooted in her political background. Having worked as a manager for the late Helen Suzman’s Houghton constituency for over 25 years, she was no stranger to the injustices of apartheid. In the wake of the 1976 Soweto uprisings, Menell helped set up the Soweto Mayors’ Children’s Fund that operated as a crisis intervention resource to help traumatised children in the township.
Realising the potential to make a much greater impact on the development of South Africa, she played an important role in establishing the Urban Foundation in 1977 which focused on, among other things, urban development, housing and education in black townships. At the Urban Foundation, Menell participated in the design and management of different projects, including a bridging programme for gifted black matriculants and a community upgrade initiative in Orlando East, Soweto.
Menell used the Urban Foundation to advance the cause of education among black children. Her dedication to quality education for black children shows that she is a humane individual who relates to all people in society, regardless of race, class, age and gender.
Beyond politics and development, she also has a passion for the arts. For many years, she served as the chairperson of the Market Theatre Foundation. As part of her community service, she participated in the establishment of the Johannesburg Arts Foundation, a community centre that provided professional and recreational training to a wide range of South Africans.
Menell was also the founding executive director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa, set up following the Goldstone Commission. The institute was established as an independent non-governmental body to offer professional services towards the promotion of human rights, peace and democracy in the country.
Irene Menell spent the better part of her life displaying the highest values of service and patriotic citizenship in South Africa.
She recently retired after many years as chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the University of Cape Town. She serves as a trustee and executive member of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.