The Doll Project: The Competition

Prizes for this unique design and story competition will be awarded by the creator of the dolls internationally known singer , Yolanda Donkers who ‘dared to dream’. Her story is an amazing one – and she will be coming to Swellendam to present the prizes as part of a Womans Day event in August.

It was over 15 years ago that I first met Yolanda Donkers.

It was my third visit to South Africa – and the second time that I had brought a school group over from UK to participate in a dance drama project with a school in Nyanga – my pupils from hugely privileged backgrounds in a North London private school, meeting and working with learners from a school in Nyanga, one of the poorest and hardest places to grow up in.

Everything about these visits was so inspirational – especially the relationships and friendships that developed between the students – that still, unbelievably, exist today. There are many incredible stories to be told – not least the fact that now I live, work and thrive in South Africa myself and have done so for the last 13 years – challenged – but happy.

But this story is about Yolanda. Yolanda was one of the group leaders, from Gugulethu. Not only did her beautiful voice cast a spell over everyone when she let those liquid notes pour over us – but her strength, her entrepreneurial spirit and her unconditional warmth and love for us ignorant foreigners (Oh boy, we were soooo naive) made her one of those people you feel utterly privileged to have met.

She shared her story with me without a shred of self-pity

In fact, she seemed surprised that I would be so shocked by it – the tragedy of what I now know to be sadly an all too familiar story. HIV positive, single mother of two small boys, struggling to support her family with the occasional gig and selling her hand made jewellery, Yolanda still made time to create a personal piece of jewellery for each of the 35 English students to remember her by. As if we would / could ever forget her!

Through the medium of social media I stayed in touch with Yolanda over the years, marvelling as her music career took off, as she became lead singer with CODA, TV presenter, motivational speaker, entrepreneur and designer …..

With her exquisite voice, captivating stage presence, and extensive repertoire, Yolanda Yawa is one of Cape Town and South Africa’s sought after performers and ambassadors, as well as an accomplished fashion designer and business entrepreneur” Read more here …

Everything good thing that has happened to Yolanda, she richly deserves. She met the love of her life and now lives most of the time in the Netherlands with her husband.

While Yolanda had relocated to Europe, I had been building a life in South Africa.

Constantly surprised by small seemingly insignificant things which exposed the inequalities of this country struggling to restructure itself, I set out on a learning curve of note.


One thing that hit me hard was a few years after my beloved housekeeper had given birth to her daughter (now 12 years old). Wanting to shower her with presents at Christmas time (I’m starved of young family members!) I tried to buy her a brown baby doll. This was not an easy task. I did eventually find one, and she, Millie, became a much loved member of the family, until left outside overnight in their garden. She disappeared. The next morning , my sweet pretend grandchild , aged 4, informed me that Millie had been “kidnapped and raped”. That a four year old should even think such a thing, is horrific – but what made it worse was the matter-of-fact way in which she told me. Despite her sadness at the doll’s disappearance, she was completely resigned to and accepting of Millie’s fate.

This horrible story is only a small part of the bigger picture.

The truth is that life for many young girls and women in South Africa is horrific. Everyone knows it. I don’t need to write about it. I wouldnt know where to start. But I, and everybody else, need to think about it. And resolve to do whatever we can each do to help that situation change.

As the four year old turned five, six, and seven, baby dolls became less interesting to her. Now she was attracted to the teeny waisted, long legged, huge eyed, totally unrealistic plastic figurines with shiny nylon blonde tresses that line the bottom shelves of all the toy sections in all the supermarkets. Not a brown or black one to be seen.

There was little I could do. That’s what was on offer and that is what I bought her. With gritted teeth – I bought the child a ‘sexy’ doll which was shaped unrealistically , with blingy sparkling accessories, with pink skin and blonde hair. I knew if my own social justice warrior daughter back in England found out what I had done – her judgement would be severe. (Sorry Em). But I was struggling with the guilt many of the privileged are riddled with – the child wanted a doll and I had the means to buy it. And I had no choice ….

Yolanda, however, was not wasting her time, and she had not forgotten her roots

She had started a company in Cape Town called Luvuthando Dolls. Aimed at redressing the balance and getting some of those black and brown dolls out there. Dressed using traditional materials with nods to culture and heritage, but at the same time fashionable and trendy.

Each doll has his or her own name and story.

So the idea of creating a competition which would encourage young people, in particular girls, to be creative, to connect with their heritage and to feel proud of who they are and what they are capable of was born.

My role in this has been simple. I just asked Yolanda to supply me with 6 dolls and when she next flew in from Europe I met her at The V & A Waterfront where our acquaintance had begun 15 years earlier. All I now had to do was launch the competition:



“Dare2Dream” encourages young people not to give up on their dreams –and not to think that they are limited by their gender, body shape, culture, circumstances or race – because dreaming is free to all!
This exciting competition aims to offer the opportunity for young people who live in the Greater Swellendam area, who ‘dare to dream’, to win something very special. It is aimed at young people between the ages of 8 – 16 and is designed to reward imagination and independent thinking. There are three categories –
• design an outfit / costume for your idea of a female African Superhero
• write a story about a female African Superhero
• write a story about a female African Superhero and illustrate it.
Participants are asked to think about what makes someone a superhero – what is their superpower? What is their mission in life? How will they solve problems and make the world a better place?
This competition is for the child who enjoys creative expression, but who often gets overlooked in the rush by others to get noticed by parading down catwalks, appearing in plays or scoring winning goals every week

If you know a child like this, or if you are a young person who identifies with this, then visit the Railton Foundation office in Veldkornet Street, or visit Net vir Pret in Barrydale or the Zinc Gallery in Suurbraak

Because I still can’t speak Afrikaans ( I know, I know – I have tried, honestly) and I’m a bit old and a bit white, I thought it might be better if I could ask people with access to the community to help launch the competition

I have met some remarkable people since living here – Peter Takelo, in Barrydale, tirelessly trying to re-connect young people with their culture and their heritage through dance, drama and music. Donovan Julius, from Suurbraak, helping youngsters to use their creativity in art and sculpture to develop pride in themselves and respect their environment, and Alpha Fransman from Railton Foundation who takes community responsibility to the next level with everything she does, ably assisted by Bradley Booysen and a hard working young team.

They set up holiday workshops to introduce the children to the ideas about what it is to be a hero – to introduce them to design and sewing skills, and learning how their own heritage can influence what they produce.

When it comes to talking “privilege” this is real privilege. To have the honour to know and be inspired by these South Africans – to be accepted whole heartedly by them and to be shown by them what wonderful things can be achieved when you have little, but you have passion.

Winners in each category will receive their own doll, and the winning designer will get the opportunity to create their own design in life size, with the help of local designer Vanessa Hulley Pfotenhauer. The winning story will be created as a small print publication.

If you have read this far, then thank you. AND if you are in any way inspired to help – to donate a prize or a special experience to a winning participant, please email me at

There is a fund raising quiz for the project on Sunday July 21st if you would like to attend – you will meet the dolls and get pizza!