Meet the stylish cultural icons and creatives whose lives and vocations have had an enduring impact.

By Lindsay Samson

Aug 30, 2021

On August 9 1956, more than 20,000 South African women of all races staged a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria during which they protested a proposed law that saw women of color forced to carry “passes”—a tool that served to maintain population segregation. In commemoration of the historic event, Women’s Day and Month is observed every August in South Africa in an effort to draw attention to significant issues African women still face from domestic violence and sexual harassment to unequal pay and lack of education. To honor the moment, we’re spotlighting four South African cultural icons and creatives in history who have redefined (and continue to redefine) feminism in South Africa. Oh, and did we mention they also happen to be incredibly stylish? Read on to discover who they are. 

Winnie Mandela


Affectionately known as the “Mother of the Nation”, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is an indisputable South African icon. And while she’s known by most of the world as the second wife of Nelson Mandela, she was also a formidable force on her own. In a society that demanded that women play a subservient role in all aspects of life, Mandikizela-Mandela refused to be a passive bystander and instead became an active participant in the struggle against the apartheid regime. A woman who was hailed by her supporters as a feminist icon, she’s rightfully remembered as a fearless, firebrand activist dedicated to the fight.

Following her death in 2018, a sea of women of all ages gathered in Soweto, clapping their hands, chanting, and singing in honor of the anti-apartheid stalwart. The Winnie-style head wrap that she had made her trademark (which she often wore with her demonstrated preference for vibrant, colorful outfits) was donned by hundreds of mourners, their hearts fired up by her enduring legacy. “To those who oppose us, we say, ‘Strike the woman, and you strike the rock’”: said by Madikizela-Mandela in 1966, these words defined the South African Women’s Movement, a crusade that she dedicated her life to.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2010. Photo: Via Vogue

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2013. Photo: Via AFP

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2018. Photo: Via AFP

Brenda Fassie


Known as the “Madonna of the Townships” throughout her career, Brenda Fassie (or Ma Brrr as she’s known by her legions of fans) was South Africa’s princess of pop, a maverick musician who agitated middle-class pieties as much as she did apartheid boundaries with her rebellious nature. An unapologetically defiant woman who broke records with the sales of her albums in the 80s and 90s, Fassie scandalized a then very conservative South Africa with her fashion choices, her unforgettable aesthetic expression including micro miniskirts, over the top jewelry, bell bottoms, and more.

In 2004, the singer-songwriter, dancer, and activist passed tragically at the young age of 39 years old. Still, Fassie’s legacy as a cultural icon endures, her music, style choices, outspokenness, and fiery personality rendering her a South African treasure. She was a woman the establishment couldn't control, a woman who made her own rules and balked at the idea of conforming to society’s expectations of women. “I’m not going to start justifying my character,” she is quoted as saying about her detractors' perception of her. “The way I am is the way I am, if I want to do anything with anyone that’s nobody’s business ... I do anything I want to do.” That was Fassie: an outspoken challenger of the status quo who did what she wanted, how she wanted, whenever she wanted.

Brenda Fassie,1991. Photo: Via @sahistory

Brenda Fassie in 1995. Photo: Via @Afropunk

Brenda Fassie, 1991. Photo: Via @sahistory

Bonang Matheba


One of the “most powerful entrepreneurs—man or woman—in modern day South Africa” according to Forbes, Bonang Matheba is the country’s very own “Queen B.” A woman widely admired for her ability to build longevity in the cutthroat entertainment world, Bonang is celebrated for finding success across a plethora of various once male-dominated industries. She’s also seen as a role model to many young women who draw inspiration from her life and career, her extraordinary and admirable work ethic having stirred up something inside the millions of fans who hope to emulate her journey.

When it comes to fashion, Matheba is similarly miles ahead, often spotted in striking looks by the likes of African designers like Thebe Magugu, Gert Johan Coetzee, Viviers, and Taibo Bacar. From hosting red carpet events for E!, a brand ambassadorship for Revlon South Africa and heading up The Bonang Matheba Bursary Fund (which aims to provide 300 young girls the opportunity to pursue a tertiary education), to breaking into the luxury alcoholic beverage market, launching a lingerie line and writing a bestselling memoir, Matheba has proven herself a titan of entrepreneurship. She’s a strong woman that has forged her own path and created her own narrative. “Being a powerful woman, she says, “means that you are strong enough to make your own decisions, to be free, and to break the status quo that people have set up for women.”

Bonang Matheba styled by J. Bolin for Johnnie Walker, 2019. Photo: Via @bonang_m

Bonang Matheba Gert Johan-Coatzee for #LunchwithBNG, 2019. Photo: Via @bonang_m 

Bonang Matheba. Photo: Via @bonang_m

Thando Hopa


A lawyer, activist, model, and actress, Thando Hopa has proven herself a force to be reckoned with across the board, a fashion-forward woman whose multi-faceted career and unapologetic championing of representation has garnered her fans and admirers across the country. Born with albinism, she made history in 2018 when she became the first woman with albinism to appear on the cover of Vogue Portugal as well as the first Black South African woman to star in the iconic Pirelli Calendar. And since in certain parts of Africa those with albinism still face an intense stigma, Hopa’s success, comfort in her skin, and increased visibility proves to be a radical and powerful statement in and of itself.

Having worked as a legal prosecutor for four years predominantly representing women who were victims of sexual assault, Hopa was spotted by South African designer Gert Johan Coetzee who cast her as a model for his eponymous brand: this partnership would blossom into a symbiotic relationship that has seen Hopa become something of an unofficial face of the label, one whose impact is felt in each and every field she has dedicated herself to. “I think that as a Black African, and woman with albinism, I have fought for empowerment my whole life,” she says. “Everything that goes against this is the origin of my activism; it is the reason why I am an activist.”

Thando Hopa by Justin Dingwall, 2018. Photo: Via @thandohopa

Thando Hopa by Rhys Frampton. Photo: Via Vogue Portugal

Thando Hopa by Justin Dingwall, 2018. Photo: Via @thandohopa