Rhoda Kadalie was born in 1953 in District Six, Cape Town, and became a pioneering feminist within the anti-apartheid movement, as well as one of the most prominent critics of the post-apartheid government.
Read the new, authorized biography from University of Johannesburg Press, written by son-in-law Joel B. Pollak.
Rhoda was born in 1953 in District Six, Cape Town, and became a pioneering feminist within the anti-apartheid movement, as well as one of the most prominent critics of the post-apartheid government. After her family was forcibly removed from a "white" area in the suburb of Mowbray, she matriculated at Harold Cressy High School and graduated from the segregated University of the Western Cape (UWC) with degrees in library science and anthropology. She earned a Master's Degree in Development Studies at the International Institute for Social Studies at The Hague, Netherlands, in 1986. She founded the Gender Equity Unit at UWC, and served in Nelson Mandela's administration on the South African Human Rights Commission. She later resigned in protest and founded Impumelelo, an organization devoted to supporting and replicating successful private-public partnerships for social development. She wrote popular columns in the South African press, both English and Afrikaans, and was among the first to warn about the corruption and mismanagement of the African National Congress. She was recognized as one of the most important opposition voices in the country -- though she criticized opposition parties, too. She is the author of several academic papers and an anthology of columns, In Your Face, which was published in 2009. A rare pro-Israel voice in the South African media, she was also a keen observer of U.S. politics, and was one of the few who predicted Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election. She moved to the U.S. in 2018 to be with her family, and died of cancer in April 2022.
Joel Pollak is a South African-born writer and attorney living in Los Angeles, California. He grew up in suburban Chicago and graduated from Harvard College in 1999. He returned to South Africa as a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar, and stayed on to work as a freelance journalist. From 2002 to 2006, he served as the speechwriter to the Leader of the Opposition in the South African Parliament, Tony Leon, and worked on the mayoral campaign of Helen Zille in Cape Town in 2006. He earned a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, then returned to the U.S. and graduated from Harvard Law School in 2009. Once a left-wing activist, his politics shifted to the right, and he ran for Congress in 2010 as a Republican in his home district in Illinois, losing to an entrenched incumbent but mounting a campaign that earned national attention. He joined conservative media pioneer Andrew Breitbart at Breitbart News in 2011, where he currently serves as senior editor-at-large and in-house counsel. He is the author of over a dozen print and online books, including How Trump Won and Red November. He is married to labor economist Julia Pollak (née Bertelsmann), the daughter of the late Rhoda Kadalie, and they have three children.
Interview on SABC "Morning Live" discussing "Rhoda: A Biography" - February 26, 2023
SABC News story about Rhoda Kadalie's passing in 2022
Lecture for EthicsXChange conference, Cape Town, 2013
Rhoda Kadalie on the failures of South Africa's ruling party
Rondebosch United Church, 26 June 2021
Rhoda as an infant, District Six, circa 1954. (Courtesy Rhoda Kadalie)
Rhoda visits Bloemhof Flats (Skyways), District Six, Cape Town, c. 1980, where her family lived before moving to Mowbray in 1961. The complex is one of the few residential structures to survive the era of forced removals. (Courtesy Rhoda Kadalie)
Rhoda outside the Mowbray Wash House, Mowbray, Cape Town, c.1967. The family relocated to Mowbray in 1961 after her father, Pastor Fenner Kadalie, was appointed to a post in the city's sanitation department. They lived in a cottage adjoining the wash house and had an extensive garden in the era before the interchange between the M5 and N2 highways was built nearby. (Courtesy Rhoda Kadalie)
Joan Kadalie and the first eight Kadalie children in the garden of the Mowbray Wash House, c. 1967. The ninth, Judith (Judy), would arrive in 1969. (Courtesy Rhoda Kadalie)
Clements Kadalie’s first home in South Africa, where he stayed with his brother Robert Victor Kadalie, 6 Morris Street, Bo Kaap, as viewed in February 2022, with Table Mountain in the background. Clements Kadalie was the first black trade unionist in South Africa and the first modern leader of a mass movement in South Africa against racial discrimination. (Photo: Joel Pollak)
University of the Western Cape (UWC) Anthropology Society, in Saldanha, Western Cape, c. 1975. Rhoda found her academic home in the discipline of anthropology, which was beginning to challenge apartheid's cultural and racial dogmas. (Courtesy Rhoda Kadalie)
Rhoda Kadalie was born on September 22, 1953, in Cape Town, the daughter of a pastor and a factory worker, and the granddaughter of Clements Kadalie, the first black trade union leader in Africa. She grew up in District Six, the colorful area later destroyed by the apartheid regime. Her family, which was classified as “Coloured,” was forcibly removed from the “white” suburb of Mowbray. She attended segregated schools.
At the University of the Western Cape, or UWC, Rhoda studied library science and anthropology. She attended Bible study meetings and political events, and became involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. Defying apartheid’s laws against interracial relationships, Rhoda married a white lecturer from a German family. They had to leave the country to get married and were harassed by police on their return.
In 1985, Rhoda traveled to Europe to study. There, Rhoda completed a master's degree in social studies at The Hague, where she met female activists from all over the world. When she returned to South Africa, Rhoda began organizing women at UWC. They fought against discrimination and sexual violence on campus, and challenged the anti-apartheid movement to treat women’s rights as urgently as racial equality.
Rhoda soon became one of the leading feminists in South Africa, and within the anti-apartheid struggle in particular. She rejected the idea that women’s liberation had to defer to national liberation. She was feared and admired within the anti-apartheid movement. She mentored many young women, academically and professionally, including the American Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl, who was tragically murdered in 1993.
She was also one of the leading voices for gay and lesbian rights. A committed Christian, Rhoda became disillusioned with the conservative theology of the church under apartheid. But through her own study of the Bible, she came to embrace a vision of a more caring, tolerant, and compassionate God. She argued for the ordination of women as ministers and for the acceptance of gay marriage by the Dutch Reformed Church.
In 1993, Rhoda founded the Gender Equity Unit at UWC, a unique institution promoting women’s rights and women’s studies. Her leadership inspired similar efforts at other campuses, and gained national attention. After South Africa’s first multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Rhoda to be one of eleven members of the Human Rights Commission, upholding the country’s new values.
Rhoda became the most visible face of the Commission, taking up the cause of South Africa’s most vulnerable people, including prisoners and homeless children. But she later resigned in protest, arguing that the Commission did not take its work seriously. She then founded Impumelelo, an organization that pursued socioeconomic rights by funding the most innovative public-private partnerships in South Africa.
While she helped the ruling African National Congress, or ANC, pursue its development goals, Rhoda also became one of its most outspoken critics. She began writing opinion columns in South African newspapers and became a favorite among readers. She was among the first to speak out against President Thabo Mbeki’s policies on HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe, both of which were driven by a lingering obsession with race.
Rhoda rejected the idea that South Africa’s racist past ought to define its post-apartheid future. While she initially supported policies like affirmative action, she argued that it was being abused by the ANC, and that the country risked losing the skills of racial minorities that could uplift the black majority. She criticized the policy of Black Economic Empowerment, or BEE, noting that it had been corrupted by rich ANC insiders.
Corruption became the main target of Rhoda’s columns. She attacked the greed of the ruling party elite, and warned South Africans that the ANC was exploiting the moral authority of the anti-apartheid struggle to steal from the public. Later, that insight became conventional wisdom, as South Africans learned about “state capture” and the decay of public utilities. But at the time, Rhoda was one of the first to sound the alarm.
While still a member of the ANC, Rhoda often encouraged South Africans to support the opposition, notably the Democratic Alliance, or DA. The DA is a “liberal” party in the classical sense, supporting free markets, individual liberty, and constitutional restraints on government power. At one point, Rhoda was offered the leadership of the DA. But she declined, preferring to stay out of politics and keep her independent voice.
Rhoda did not call herself a “liberal.” Her political philosophy was based on the idea of pluralism, that a healthy democracy depended on citizens having a variety of choices. She argued in a 2005 lecture: “Some parties offer liberal solutions, others nationalist ones; some socialist and some religious. Some of these are unpopular, impractical, or simply obsolete. Nevertheless it is important that we have these choices.”
Rhoda won many awards and honorary doctorates -- including from UWC, Stellenbosch, and Sweden's Uppsala University -- as she continued to take controversial stands on a variety of issues. She was one of the few pro-Israel voices in the South African media, for example. She rejected the attempt by Palestinian activists to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa, noting that Israel embraced democracy and equality.
Later, Rhoda also defended U.S. President Donald Trump. She was among the first to predict that he would win the 2016 election, and one of the few who understood his appeal to the American electorate. She was fond of saying that “America needs a skollie,” using the local Cape Town slang for “gangster.” Rhoda saw Trump as a disruptive outsider who would break up the cozy, complacent conformity of Washington’s elite.
Rhoda’s stance on Trump cemented her reputation as a contrarian figure in South African public life. But while some shied away from debate, Rhoda embraced it. She had friends from across the political spectrum with whom she argued, off and on, for decades. If one could sum up Rhoda’s character in one virtue, it would be "courage" — the courage to disagree and to speak out, and to encourage others to do the same.
In 2018, Rhoda moved to the United States to be closer to her only child -- her daughter, Julia -- and to her grandchildren. She continued to write for the South African media from Los Angeles. In 2021, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, despite never having smoked. She struggled for seven months before passing away in April 2022. Her legacy lives on in the principles she upheld, and the people she continues to inspire.