Women in Agriculture: Interview with Tharina Rossel, the outgoing president of the SA Women's Agricultural Union

In this interview, I speak with Tharina Rossel, the outgoing president of the South African Women's Agricultural Union. Tharina shares her thoughts on her role at the organization, her legacy and the future of women in agriculture, as well as diversity in the sector. 

Briefly tell us about SAWAU?

SAWAU was born 90 years ago out of a need felt by women to empower and educate themselves. SAWAU has seven daughter organizations, representing women from all over Southern Africa.

Our mission is still the empowering and education of women. We believe in creating an opportunity for members to discover their talents, cultivate it and express themselves. This leads to women having their own businesses, looking after their families and their communities.

COVID did not only come as a huge challenge. We believe in always looking for the positive in life. During this times, SAWAU has helped members to hone their skills, be creative and positive and become entrepreneurs from home. 

How did you get involved in SAWAU?

I have been a member of the Womens’s Agricultural Union form 35 years. We are a grassroots-up organization. In my branch, I acted as chairperson, treasurer, etc. On provincial level, I was president of WAU North (Limpopo) for six years before being chosen as SAWAU president in 2015.

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What was your experience like as the president of the organisation?

I found it inspiring. Having known the power of the WAU-women, I was still left in awe of how resilient, innovative and creative women can be. Visiting women all over the country and as far as Namibia, I can say without a doubt that the future is bright, because we live in a world of wonderful women.

What do you feel has been instrumental to your success at SAWAU?

I am a realist and believe in tackling a problem head-on, turning it into an opportunity. Though it was hard for everyone adapting to the so-called ‘new normal’, I could count on the cooperation of my team and rely on the spirit of powerful women all over the subcontinent.

What are some of the SAWAU's flagship projects that you were part of that are helping shape the narrative and move the gender development agenda forward in the sector?

The WAU is not a tea party. We train women in organizational management, meeting procedures, handling different portfolios. We have specific study topics such as Agriculture, Health , etc. This means that every branch has the tools to ensure growth in any of these directions.

Our last big project was the ‘Care blankets’. Members knitted, crocheted, sewed and knotted more than 2000 blankets.  These were distributed among the elderly and the needy.

Which female leaders, both historical and present day, do you look to in difficult times or when you’re seeking inspiration?

There are so many wonderful women through history that inspire us on a daily level. Of course, my mother was a great inspiration for me. We are what we were taught and she taught me well.

I find inspirations from the WAU women. Even though times are tough, they will not be defeated. They will work hard, honing skills and be creative. I learn from them every day.

What role do women play in agriculture today and how you can see it changing in the future?

Women are the custodians of our ancient wisdoms. From big commercial farms to small food gardens in the backyard, women have been feeding the people for centuries. 

We believe that the challenge of climate change is very real and that women are ideally suited to face this challenge, implementing skills and wisdoms to overcome adversity.

We must assist our farmers to adapt to the changing climate. It is truly a case of adapt or die.

How do you feel the agri sector is doing in terms of gender equity and embracing the power of diversity? 

We still have a long way to go. There are many successful female farmers that can be mentoring others. Do not forget that being a farmer is not defined by how much or how little land you have. It lies in the hand that plants the seed.

If you could share one piece of advice with the future generation of women in agriculture, what would it be?

Our theme of the recent congress says it all:  Honor our past, Celebrate the present and Cherish the future

How can we encourage more women to pursue agriculture as a career?

Knowledge is power. We need to educate women. If you can produce food in your backyard, it can feed your family. If you can do it with confidence, you can feed your community.

It is not only the production of food that is important, it  is what we do with it. The old ways of preserving food is a wonderful art. Waste not, want not!

How important is it for women to empower, support and lift each other up, and what does that mean to you? 

It is not only important, it  is essential. In families where there is still a man present, they go off to work, leaving us to take care of the family, the house, while still contributing to the family’s income. Nowadays there are so many single women taking care of their children and families on their own. Having the support of a sister, a friend is what keeps us alive, on our feet and going strong. Women should refrain from pulling other women down, from being jealous and envious. We need each other.

Having my WAU friends as a support group, has helped me immensely throughout my life.

This is an overwhelming time and it’s easy to feel a little bit despondent.  How do you take care of yourself and stay positive and energized during times like these?

As a Christian I find my strength in my faith. This means that I believe we are never lost, we are never without hope or without saving. I find support within my family and my friends. We can borrow faith and hope from each other. This gives us the strength and the courage to go on. 

What are you going to do now that you are retiring as SAWAU president?

I am still part of the WAU. I am currently chairperson of my branch. Once a WAU-woman, always a WAU-member. I love traveling and spending time with my husband, who has sacrificed a lot for me during the past six years. So I will be spending time with him and my family, who is now spread across the world.

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