As we look back on Women's Month in South Africa, Dr Beryl Botman, has just completed a number of Women's Month engagements in August in which she shared information about her first non-fiction book, With (-Out) You. It tells the deeply personal story of how she dealt with the sudden passing of her husband, and former Vice-Chancellor and Rector of Stellenbosch University, Prof Russel Botman.
The book chronicles how she coped with the loss of Russel, who was also her friend, confidante, and biggest supporter, in the first year after his death on 28 June 2014.
“It was very difficult losing Russel," says Botman, “but I managed to cope by pulling in support where I needed it and also looking after my psychological wellbeing."
Some months after Russel's passing, Dr Botman finished her PhD at SU in 2014 and joined Free State University as a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the then Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice. She also started working on various writing projects while also mulling over others she wanted to start.
“Russel and I had always said that when he retires we will start writing, so I always knew I would start writing one day," says Botman.
Russel's death pushed her into writing, when she was asked to submit an epilogue in the tribute book to Russel. Today she also serves as Chair of the Russel Botman Bursary Fund and on the Committee that organises the Russel Botman Memorial Lecture.
Botman's own journey into the education and higher education sector, started in the late 1970s when she enrolled for a BA degree at the University of Cape Town after matriculating from Crestway High School in Retreat. As a woman of colour, she was only allowed to attend the university after obtaining a study permit. She also completed a teaching diploma and a BEd degree at UCT.
She worked as a teacher at Lavender Hill Senior Secondary School teaching Afrikaans First and Second Language to Grade 8 to 12 learners for 13 years, and completed a Masters in Education at the University of the Western Cape in that time on a part-time basis. After graduating in 1995, Botman became a Senior Curriculum Advisor for Afrikaans in the then Worcester region of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). She was later promoted to Deputy Chief Education Specialist in the same department, but in 2004 Botman realised she had become “disillusioned with her career" and resigned from the WCED.
By this time, Russel was serving as Vice Rector: Teaching and Learning at SU, and Botman was balancing her PhD studies in Values Education at SU with her role as a mother who had to take on more household duties to allow Russel to excel in a position that demanded a lot of his time and effort. In 2007, Russel became the first black Vice Chancellor and Rector of SU, which placed even more demands on him.
“Russel and I decided together that applying for the Vice Chancellor position was the most influential way that we could make a difference together, with me fulfilling more of a supportive role and taking on a lot more of the family and household responsibilities that we had shared equally before. I was also his sounding board and with my background in education and knowledge of the education environment, I was able to also give him input when needed."
Botman continued to focus on her own career too - running a Wayne Ellis Coaching Academy franchise and lecturing part-time in the Education Department at SU.
Three years after serving as Rector, Russel's vision for SU culminated in the HOPE Project which he described at the time as moving the university from “success to significance in order to be of relevance to the people of our country and continent". The project was focused on how SU could contribute to “the eradication of poverty and related conditions, and the promotion of human dignity and health, democracy and human rights, peace and security, as well as a sustainable environment and a competitive industry".
However, in his second term as Rector, Russel passed away leaving behind four children, Roxanne, Ilse, Lizelle and Hayman.
Years later, it was Roxanne who would share Michelle Obama's book, Becoming, with her and the advice of her friend, disability, and women's rights activist as well as Artscape CEO, Marlene le Roux, who inspired her to write down her story of love and loss. With (-Out) You is the first of two books she wants to publish about the first five years after Russel's passing.
“I wanted to share my experience after losing Russel, and so I told myself, I had to write 1 000 words a day at least. Somedays there were lots of writing and other days there was nothing. But it was important to document what happened after Russel's death. After his death, I had collected everything connected to that time in a box - all the cards, the notes, the newspaper clippings that became my sources for writing.
“This process has brought some perspective and some things I now see differently than I saw then, but I wanted this to be MY reflection on that year and I wanted it to be authentic."
Reflecting on where South African women find themselves in Women's Month 2022, Botman is clear on the challenges, but remains hopeful.
“My feelings about Women's Month are quite ambivalent, and while I know we have made some strides in improving the position of women in society today, there are still so many challenges that we face. We are still struggling with disparities in salaries between men and women, unequal appointment, and promotion processes for women, and then of course the added obstacles that women of colour face," says Botman.
“It can therefore feel like we are not making progress, but if we are honest, and reflect on the statistics regarding the equality of women in all spheres of society, then we have made some progress. It's just that it has been very, very slow."
It is particularly because of the inequalities that women already face outside the home, that Botman believes that it is vital to build a life or other types of relationships with individuals who see your value and want to see you thrive and grow.
“I was always Russel's equal and he had a high regard for the value that I brought to the relationship. He always used to joke, that if he had to pay me, he wouldn't be able to afford me," says Botman and laughs.
It is these values that were so central to their life together that Botman hopes they managed to also carry over to their children as their daughters are still facing the same challenges as many women before them have faced, from being disregarded in the workplace and daily life, to being treated as a threat when their qualifications outweigh their peers and being expected to be subservient to be accepted.
“The challenges never stop, no matter your age, and by the virtue of being a woman, you have to be ready to continuously push those barriers."
While she admits that life without Russel can be a daily struggle, on the days she wants to share news of her day with him - like the recent publication of her first book - she is grateful that she was the “one who got to spend 25 years with him".
“I can't be dissatisfied that I now have to live without him, because living without him means I also got to share a life with him for 25 years. We shared such a close relationship, we worked together, we had fun together and we travelled together. Looking back, I am grateful that I resigned from my job in 2004, because if I had not, I would not have been able to spend the next seven years travelling with him across the world and I don't regret any of it."
- Dr Botman's book With (-Out) You can be purchased on Amazon and Smashwords at https://linktr.ee/berylbotman. It will soon also be available at other bookstores and on Takealot.