Contact Us
5 December 2022
Turning the South African Constitution into a living document
Melene Rossouw is an internationally recognised gender and human rights activist, and attorney by training with 14 years’ work experience in the private, governmental, and non-governmental sectors. However, what has fueled her career is her deep-seated belief in the values and aspirations of the Constitution of South Africa and her commitment towards the realisation thereof. 

It’s why the University of the Western Cape (UWC) alumna is working hard to turn the Constitution into a living document for South Africans through programmes that seek to educate and empower the country’s citizens.

Rossouw grew up in Bellville South in a single parent household, just a stone’s throw away from the university where she later enrolled for an LLB degree. After completing her LLB in 2006, she registered for an LLM degree specialising in Public and Constitutional Law and majoring in Socio-Economic Rights and Law of Intergovernmental Relations.

While Rossouw was also accepted for a degree focused on Political Science at Stellenbosch University, she opted to study at UWC instead. Here she also served on the SRC and as a member of SASCO. 

“I chose UWC because it was rooted in the community; it reflected and embraced diversity, and not only played a leading role in ensuring South Africa became a democracy but also produced prominent leaders and agents of change who were involved in the struggle, many of whom still play an important role in society today. That made me proud to be affiliated with the University.”

Interestingly enough, a degree in law had not even been her first choice. She had always imagined herself living a nomadic lifestyle, writing books, and travelling the world. 

However, in her second year of law, when her lectures turned to Constitutional Law, Rossouw was instantly hooked. She later applied and was selected for the Integrated Bar Project by the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. Through the project, 100 law students are provided with an opportunity to apply for 10 internships at various law firms across South Africa. After making it through the first selection phase, she was selected as one of the 10 law students in South Africa to serve in a specialised internship at the Constitutional Court. There she worked as a law clerk to Justice Sandile Ngcobo. She would later return to the Constitutional Court as a law clerk to Justice Albie Sachs.

In April 2009 she was admitted as an attorney in the High Court of South Africa after completing her articles at Miller Bosman Le Roux Attorneys. 
Since obtaining her degrees, Rossouw has worked as an attorney, legal researcher, national cabinet committee secretary, special advisor to the minister and ministerial media spokesperson. Much of these positions she held before she had turned thirty years old.

“I have had the privilege of serving in respected offices such as the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the Western Cape High Court, The Presidency of South Africa, and two National Government Ministries.” 

She is also a public speaker, moderator, facilitator, strategist and consultant within the democracy, human rights, development and leadership spaces. 

But Rossouw did not stop there. Her commitment to bringing about tangible change inspired her to co-found the Women Lead Movement in 2017. The NPO is focused on promoting and advocating for “gender equality” and “active and participatory citizenry” that are “pivotal for the achievement of good governance, sustainable development, social justice and transformation”. 

She describes the Women Lead Movement as a feminist movement that works in poor and previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa to educate and empower ordinary men, women, and young people through capacity-building programmes. 

“We have initiated and participated in numerous national and international campaigns to raise awareness and share information at scale on gender-based violence, gender inequality, human rights, and democracy. Through our movement we seek to influence, challenge, and transform the barriers of unequal power relations and structures and foster a social culture of respect, understanding and tolerance for human rights in society.”

Because of her work through the movement, she was selected as the inaugural Obama Leader in Africa by the Obama Foundation in 2018. A year later she was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow (MWF) by the US Department of State and participated in the Civic Engagement track at the Presidential Precinct in Virginia, USA. Over the past four years she has also contributed to the Future Africa Forum on Governance and Human Rights in Africa through sharing her views and expertise through podcasts, webinars, articles and policy development. Rossouw has also “participated in numerous global campaigns on Gender Equality by ONE Global Movement”, including the “#YoursInPower and #PassTheMic [campaigns] which respectively reached more than 750 000 and 250 million people globally”.

In 2021 and 2022 alone, Rossouw was selected as one of the ‘Top Ten Most Influential Young Africans’ in the Leadership and Civil Society’ category by Africa Youth Awards, and as the winner of the Public and Private Service category of the Accenture Rising Star Awards Most Talented Young Professionals under the age of 40 in South Africa. She served as the Brand Ambassador of the official Brand South Africa in 2021 and in the same year was awarded the Miss South Africa Brand Ambassador title. Rossouw also serves on the Global Advisory Council of The Presidential Precinct in the United States of America and is a member of the Institute of African Women Lawyers, the African Network for Constitutional Lawyers, and RAISA Women in Leadership Network, an initiative by the Spanish Agency for International Development and Cooperation and the Spanish Government.

Thanks to her expertise in democracy and constitutionalism, human rights, leadership, governance, gender-based violence and gender equality on regional, national and international levels, she often leads discussions on pertinent issues affecting the country and communities. 
In spite of all her achievements, it has not always been smooth sailing for Rossouw. Her work and skills have taken her into spaces that are often male-dominated and patriarchal, and where women are underrepresented, treated as outsiders and even deliberately sabotaged. 

Rossouw was only 24 when she was appointed as a Deputy Director in the Cabinet Secretariat and served as Cabinet Committee Secretary for the Governance and Administration as well as Justice, Crime Prevention and Security committees. 

“This position was my first entry into National Government. I was the youngest cabinet committee secretary in the Presidency and progressed from Deputy Director, Director and then to Chief Director in the National Government. I was navigating my way in a space that is dominated by males and had to deal with covert hostility, bullying and gaslighting.”

“There is a deliberate attempt to keep women away from decision making powers,” she says.

“Because of this I was constantly speaking up, exposing unacceptable behavior, and while it was unpopular for me to do so, I did not beat around the bush. I believe in standing up for truth, fairness, and justice. You must have the courage to make tough decisions in tough situations, even if it could cost you your job. All that experience did was to invigorate me to address injustices in all its forms.

“After that experience I've become rather extreme in that I speak and act more boldly and publicly about injustice, discrimination, abuse and unfairness.”

It is clear that Rossouw has learnt a lot of important life lessons along the way, which she applies to her public and private life. 

“Make sure that you always strive to be the best at what you do because when you start questioning and challenging unjust systems and structures, the people upholding the injustice will start attacking your work, but when that can’t be attacked, your character and credibility will be next, so make sure everything you do is above reproach.”

As a self-proclaimed “nomad career woman”, she has not allowed herself to be boxed in as an attorney and encourages young people to start thinking of their degrees as the foundation for multiple careers they could follow. 

Rossouw has also learnt to embrace and appreciate failure as an important part of life as she has found them to be her biggest vehicles for growth. Instant success, she says, does not exist, but instead “we are given glimpses of success on our journey to motivate us to climb the next mountain”. 

“You simply never arrive at the pinnacle of success because there will always be another mountain to conquer.

“Authenticity is important. To be authentic means that you are acting in alignment with your inner values and character and that in and of itself is ultimate power. You will no longer seek external validation and allow yourself to be reduced by the beliefs, opinions and actions of others. However, being authentic does not mean that you are perfect. It just means you are more self-aware. Once you have grasped that you will be unstoppable in your life and career.”
Melene Rossouw was the 2021 winner of the Public and Private Service category of the Accenture Rising Star Awards Most Talented Young Professionals under the age of 40 in South Africa.