Winner: Pearl Pillay; Runners-up: Shudufhadzo Musida & Lebohang Masango

Winner: Pearl Pillay; Runners-up: Shudufhadzo Musida & Lebohang Masango
Youth Lab’s Pearl Pillay. (Photo: YouTube)

Pearl Pillay is paving the way for young people’s rights in South Africa.

Not many people can claim to have started their careers like Pearl Pillay. On the day Pillay met the directors of Youth Lab in 2014, she was expelled from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for her role in a disruptive pro-Palestine protest. As a result, she was promptly hired as the organisation’s first intern.

This is how her arrival is recalled by Tessa Dooms, then managing director of Youth Lab, a non-profit organisation (NPO) that is 100% owned by young, black women.

“From that point already, I knew that Pearl had a deep commitment to social justice,” said Dooms. “She understood that her own position in society may not have been the best, but that it wasn’t only about her as an individual… [it was] that she had to seek justice for all people who are marginalised and disadvantaged.”

Although Pillay returned to Wits to complete her master’s degree in political science, she continued to work at Youth Lab throughout her studies. In 2019, she took over as managing director.

Youth (Lab) development

Youth Lab was a very different organisation when Pillay started there, with a strong orientation around policy work. “I came in with a little bit of an activist background … and so after I joined, we started making the transition into being an organisation that focused a lot more on community-related work,” said Pillay.

As a policy think-tank, Youth Lab was involved in creating the previous National Youth Policy and later drew attention to the failures of the current youth policy, according to Pillay. This was a significant accomplishment for a small organisation that doesn’t “play politics”, she said.

The NPO also runs programmes that provide active support for the younger generation, such as a programme to address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health. “We’ve run that programme three times since the beginning of last year,” she said. “It’s made such a huge difference in young people’s lives because it gave them an opportunity to take care of their own mental health.”

Pillay’s skills as an organiser and mobiliser have resulted in her developing many of the organisational processes and systems at Youth Lab, according to Dooms.

“She’s not just somebody who talks a big game – she is somebody who can follow through with her actions,” said Dooms. “I’ve seen that in working with her through the years. Pearl gets things done.”

Proactive support

The value of such a proactive figure in youth development is glaringly apparent against South Africa’s current social backdrop. The youth unemployment rate currently stands at 66.5% for those aged 15 to 24 years and 43.8% for those aged 25 to 34 years, according to Statistics South Africa, and demonstrates the need for strong representatives among the country’s young citizens.

“[Youth Lab’s] role is really to spotlight and amplify the work and the voices of young people around the country, and show that what we actually need is support,” said Pillay. By providing a platform to showcase the immense capacity of youth in South Africa, Youth Lab intends to demonstrate that “young people care about issues”, whether related to land, the economy, education or elections, said Pillay.

The key role that Pillay has played in youth development was acknowledged when she was appointed to the new board of the National Youth Development Agency.

It was also announced this week that Pillay  has been appointed for a five-year term as a member of the high-level National Planning Commission, which focuses on the country’s long-term development issues.

“For me, it’s about … making it known and making it seen that there actually is space for all of us,” she said.

Daily Maverick readers voted Pillay the winner in DM168’s youth champ poll. In Dooms’ words, “the young people of South Africa have a champion in Pearl”. DM168

Miss South Africa 2020 Shudufhadzo Musida. (Photo: Gallo Images / Ziyaad Douglas)


“I stand here as an advocate for educational and economic empowerment of women and children and mental health awareness – honoured to be an ambassador of this beautiful nation.”

These were the words of Shudufhadzo Musida in her Miss South Africa 2020 acceptance speech. Musida went on to say that she would use her platform to bring more awareness of mental health, particularly in rural and disadvantaged areas.

Over the past year, Musida (25) has used her platform to start conversations around mental health. In February 2021, she launched her online mental health initiative, #MindfulMondays, in partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. During sessions, various experts spoke on a range of mental health topics.

Musida has authored a book, Shudu Finds her Magic, which deals with themes of bullying and friendship, as experienced in her own life. The book, published in six languages, teaches kids how to cope with bullying.

Musida has created positive change and demonstrated the power that the platform can hold. She has repeatedly tackled difficult themes in the name of progress. DM168

Anthropologist, author and poet Lebohang Masango. (Photo: Wits Vuvuzela)


Not everyone can be an anthropologist, author and poet, but Lebohang Masango has managed to balance these roles naturally. All three involve reading and writing – pursuits that she loves. “My mission as an anthropologist informs my mission as a children’s book writer, which informs my mission as a poet,” said Masango, who holds a master’s degree in social anthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand.

In studying anthropology, Masango came to acknowledge and respect that not all knowledge can be attained through the university or schooling system.

“Knowledge is created by sitting among your people, soaking in their stories, and just knowing who you are and what your personal historical narrative is, as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a collective, as a society,” explained Masango.

This has informed her work as a writer of children’s stories, making her cognisant of inequalities and how she portrays characters.

“I understand the importance of ensuring that people can see themselves represented,” said Masango. “Hundreds of years from now, we want people to be able to look back at the kind of knowledge that was being produced around this time and see that we were people who cared to represent people well.” DM168



Every year, Daily Maverick puts its mind to the question of who we should recognise in our annual Persons of the Year categories.

In the past, these decisions have been made after a bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but this year, we decided to do things a little differently. We had the bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but simply to arrive at a shortlist of nominees in each category. Using a new reader engagement tool called Hearken, we asked our online readers to cast their votes on who they think deserves the final nod. We also gave readers the option to choose their own candidate in any category in case they thought we had neglected anyone more worthy. The results were both expected and surprising.

On the whole, readers agreed with our shortlisted candidates, with a few exceptions. We had not considered Greta Thunberg as a candidate for International Person of the Year, but so many readers nominated her that she earned enough mentions to be a runner-up in that category.

Many objected to us only focusing on singers for our Artist of the Year and objected to the predominance of foreign singers in the category. Quite a few readers were critical of us leaving out African women and female contenders in general.

The journalists at Daily Maverick were mentioned several times as nominees for different categories of People of the Year – ah, thanks for the love, guys, but this time around we wanted to cast our net outside our inner circle.

The more than 800 readers who voted totally exceeded our expectations, because this was the first time we have opened People of the Year to readers’ votes.

Below are the categories. Read about the winners and runners-up in various categories below.

  • South African Person of the Year – a person who has had the broadest or most significant impact on the country as a whole.
  • Africa Person of the Year – a person who has made an outstanding contribution on the African continent this year.
  • International Person of the Year – a person who has had broad international impact or made an outstanding contribution this year.
  • South African Villain of the Year – there was no shortage of suggestions in this self-explanatory category…
  • International Villain of the Year – as above, but drawn from foreign fields.
  • South African Businessperson of the Year – not necessarily the person who made the biggest profit, but someone whose influence went beyond the balance sheets.
  • Community Champion of the Year – someone uplifting, defending and representing ordinary South Africans, often against all odds.
  • South African Polluter of the Year – individuals and entities which have succeeded in further dirtying our environment this year.
  • Our Burning Planet Heroes of the Year – the green warriors fighting for our planet’s survival.
  • South African Youth Champion of the Year – young people working to improve the lot of other young people.
  • Sportsperson of the Year – a sportsperson whose positive impact has been felt either on or off the field.
  • Sports Team of the Year – a team that has stood out from the rest in 2021 either on or off the field.
  • Artist of the Year – a hitmaker whose musical or social influence has towered above others.
  • Moegoe of the Year – someone whose behaviour perhaps falls short of Villain of the Year, but who has in some way acted idiotically.
  • Grinch of the Year – someone who qualifies as a spoilsport or killjoy. – Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.



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