GETTING TO KNOW: ‘KnitWit’ and founder of 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day Carolyn Steyn.

The date is 22 April 2016, the location: Drakenstein Correctional Service Centre in the Western Cape. Carolyn Steyn and her team of ‘KnitWits’ from 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day are about to break their own World Record at putting together the largest knitted blanket in the world. But the heavens have opened from above and they now face strong howling winds and a typical Cape downpour.

Fortunately for Carolyn and her team, with the help of the local Area Commissioner they are able to divide thousands of blankets across the industrial laundry facilities of correctional centres in the area to have them washed and dried and she is ready to make history. The world’s largest blanket officially measures 17,181m2, and with that, over 15,000 blankets will be distributed on July 18th in honour of former president Nelson Mandela. We chat to Carolyn about her exciting career and what 67 Blankets for Mandela Day means to South Africa.

Carolyn Steyn: Welcome. It’s a lovely winter’s day, not too cold and we are getting ready to distribute thousands of blankets around the country.

Embassy Direct: Thank you for having us, Carolyn. Let us start at the beginning of a very exciting career. You have been on stage locally and abroad, what are your major satisfactions as a performer?

Carolyn Steyn: Gosh, I haven’t performed in years. I used to do a lot of stage work and I would say the highlight, but we are talking many years ago, would be a production called ‘Poppie Nongena’. It is a play about a black woman in South Africa whose life is governed by pass laws. That was in about 1984 and we opened the production in Soweto. The character I played was the part of a white madam and social worker, with Poppie my maid. I was terrified at that time that audiences would hate me, but I was a comedy act. When we performed to a white audience at The Market Theatre there was deathly silence in those comedy moments that I had found in Soweto. So it was very interesting performing for two different audiences. That was the highlight of my theatre career, Poppie Nongena.

And you’ve had the chance to interact with celebrities such as Anne Archer and Kate Hudson. How was your experience abroad and do you remain in contact?

Also, many years ago. I lived in the United States for 10 years and I was in an acting class with Anne Archer, Giovani Ribisi, Jeffrey Tambor, Kate Hudson. I was in class with them for about five or six years, and we worked together a lot. But life moves on. No, I’m not in contact with them. I am very involved with blankets now. And unless people are involved in making blankets or in distributing blankets, my life is not really involved with performers per se.

Your lifelong career would define you as a role model capable of inspiring others to do the right thing. How would you define exactly who Carolyn Steyn is?

Very complicated (Laughs). My life has been an interesting journey. I grew up a very normal girl, I went to Jeppe High School for Girls in Kensington. I’m from a very average family. I was fortunate in that I was able to go to university, but I fought for that. My parents couldn’t afford it, so I worked. I worked in the theatre, I used to write articles for a local newspaper, and I got bursaries along the way. I would regard myself as a fighter, as ambitious. My parents, not having the means, gave me the gift of ambition – because I had to fight for everything that I got along the way, including my education. I know what it is like not to have and I think that also taught me how to give. My mother grew up in an orphanage so she instilled those values in me. She grew up with absolutely nothing and in our life we had very little but what we did have we shared with people that didn’t. She even gave our kitchen curtains away to a waitress, so we didn’t have kitchen curtains for a long time.

Performing arts is a field that at times harvests the ego within ourselves. How is it that you find so much time for others?

My life is busy. I am married and you have to give some time to your husband as well. But I think the blanket project, again, was a gift to me. It started just over two years ago and a lot of the work is with other people. We get together as people from different races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, ages, young children, older people, and prisoners alike. So, I find time for the blanket project and that brings me into contact with so many people. When we get the blankets we go out to personally distribute to those who don’t have, so my life is about giving time to others. That just is my life.

In that line, 67 blankets for Mandela is an initiative that you started and an example of your inspiring career. Tell us the story behind this uplifting program.

It started just over two years ago on my husband’s birthday, December 19th 2013. Zelda Le Grange, Mandela’s assistant, challenged me. I was boasting about my domestic abilities, of which I had none. So she then said why don’t you make 67 blankets for Mandela day and I thought that shouldn’t be a problem because I learned how to crochet when I was at school. But when my sister arrived on Christmas Day with a bag of wool and a crochet hook I realised that I couldn’t do 67 blankets on my own. And the friends that I had said they didn’t cook, they didn’t knit – they were just too busy.  So there I was thinking how do I do this? At 3 o’clock one morning I created a group on Facebook asking total strangers for help. Is there anybody out there who might be able to help me make a blanket? And the next day there were over 100 people who had said I’m in. #Let’sDoIt. So that’s how it began. On January 27th 2014 we had a launch at the Nelson Mandela foundation. The Nelson Mandela foundation has been very supportive and has given us a lot of gravitas and credibility. I never dreamed at the time she challenged me to make 67 blankets that we would’ve made thousands and thousands. Last year we distributed about 7000 blankets made by KnitWits for Madiba (we call ourselves KnitWits for Madiba) and this year over 15,000 blankets will be distributed before Mandela Day, July 18th.

Through this project, 67 Blankets for Madiba, you have been able to do what many people would never dare – you have reached out to people who have been outcast because of their behaviour. As part of the experience of 67 blankets, how would you define your approach to prison inmates for help?

The project in prisons is a very important one for me in particular, and for 67 blankets for Nelson Mandela day. It started out because we wanted to get as many blankets as possible to break a world record. And I thought, who has time on their hands? We thought of approaching schools and having a schools competition, but kids need to study so there’s not that much time. The people who really have time on their hands, I thought, are people serving sentences behind bars. And I believe that this project is changing lives behind bars. It’s giving people who are the forgotten people a chance to feel connected with the outside world, a chance to do something good for someone less fortunate on the outside, a child or an old person who does not have a blanket. It is also a means of skills development and rehabilitation. Some of my friends are not happy with the fact that I spend as much time as I do in jail, but I firmly believe that if people are treated with some dignity and respect in that position they may walk out a better person. Prisons can become the universities of crime, you can go in there a fairly normal person – and I believe that anyone can end up in an orange uniform. That’s not to say that there aren’t evil people behind bars, of course there are. But I believe that in anybody who picks up a crochet hook and wool to create a blanket: there is goodness there. We don’t really work with the gangs, although having said that, some gang members have transferred across to the blanket project. I got a letter from Leeukop Prison to say that during the months of April, May, and June last year when we started with the project, there was not one incident of violence. I am particularly proud of the fact that we have signed a partnership agreement with our National Commissioner Zach Modise and that the Minister and the Deputy Minister are very much behind the project, because they see the difference that it has made within correctional services. One woman that I met at East London Correctional Centre when we announced our plans for Drakenstein this year, got onto stage – because I said it is very important that an offender talk about the project – and she introduced herself and said she’d served nine years of a life sentence for the murder of her husband. She was very passionate about the fact that she was able to contribute in her small way, a blanket, for someone less fortunate on the outside. So I am very proud of the fact that 67 blanket is in jail.

Your husband was a key role player after Madiba’s release from prison. You have had the good honour and fortune to be part of the life of such an icon. How do you relate to that and how does such an encounter influence your personal life?

Madiba spent a lot of time with my husband. He actually lived with my husband for about a year when he was released, at what is now known as the Saxon hotel. And when I met my husband I was so fortunate, within the first week, to meet Nelson Mandela. It was a moment in my life that I will never forget, I was just so dumbstruck I couldn’t speak. But he had this wonderful ability to make one feel at ease. I was very fortunate to have been able to spend a lot of one on one time with him, especially in the later years. I think this project is really close to my heart because it is under the umbrella of Madiba and I think that if he is looking down on us he is smiling, smiling at all this activity with so many thousands of people around the country, not just around the country but all around the world, making blankets in his name and keeping his legacy alive with each and every stitch that we make with our own two hands. You know, he did say that it is now in your hands and us KnitWits for Madiba, we are listening!

To edge a little closer to the personal, you and your husband have been married twice. Tell us the love story behind it.

Oh gosh. Let’s say we all grow up and my husband grew up. We married for the first time in 2003 and got divorced in 2003. 10 years later we remarried but that’s because we grew up. He’s become a much nicer person, and perhaps I have too.

Good for both.

It would make a good movie.

If you are given the opportunity to be born again with the option of being able to choose exactly the person you’d like to be, how would that person differ from who sits in front of us here?

I suppose I would want to say I wouldn’t change anything but in reality I would choose to stay away from the pain of relationships. Also, I’m not sure I would’ve become an actress. To me, what I’m doing now is so much more fulfilling. I would choose rather to go into fighting for human rights, so I would maybe choose a legal profession or social work. The acting I think had a hedonistic feel for me, you know, I liked the fact that I was on stage, liked the sound of the applause, but in terms of changing lives I’m not so sure how many lives I changed as an actress. I would fight for human rights had I had a chance to do it all over again

Your words are definitely inspiring, Carolyn, and we greatly appreciate this hour with you today. Any final thoughts?

I’d like to say join the knitting revolution for Madiba. Knit! I think we’re succeeding in knitting people together, in knitting our nation together and maybe one day we can look at knitting our world together – in making the world a brighter, warmer, friendlier place.