CityLife Arts

Carolyn Steyn Juggling art and philanthropy through 67 blankets

By Edward Tsumele

It was in January 2014 when an invite popped into our’ email boxes inviting us to a presentation at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The invitation did not say much about what was to be revealed, but anything associated with Mandela must be important we figured out as we contemplated to honour the invitation or not. However the organisers must have known that the media was most likely to honour the invitation, especially because the much revered first President of a democratic South Africa had died only a month before, we figured out as we made our way there.  And so without asking any question we made our way to the most respected and probably the most visited address in the suburb of Houghton, northern Johannesburg.

At the beginning it was quite unclear what was going to happen as a few musicians among them classically trained musician Timothy Moloi were entertaining people in the spacious gardens and we were served drinks and scones as we patiently waited for the reason why we were there.

Sooner than later we found out because a pretty and petite lady was introduced to the invited guests. Carolyn Steyn was our hostess. She was launching the 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela, a knitting project in which participants would volunteer their artistic skills with enthusiasm. In fact this explained why there were some people knitting all over the place as we enjoyed the expensive drinks and the eats as we waited to be addressed. . We were also told that she and her family were friends of the late former President whose private home is in the neigbourhood.

“This project came about as a result of a challenge I got from Zelda le Grange about what I was going to do to mark the 67 minutes observation in commemoration of the role of Nelson Mandela in our lives. It started off with a few friends and now this project has become so popular that I decided to launch it nationally involving more volunteers,” Steyn told us. Le Grange was Mandela’s trusted personal assistant for several years.

And quite honestly a lot of us that day did not take the project that serious, dismissing it as one of those projects bored rich people like indulging in, and like the rest of them it would eventually die a natural death. It also did not help much that a lot of us did not know much about Steyn, having only a hazy recollection of her at some arts events such as the Naledi Awards where she dished some awards previously and that was it. Steyn is one of the few committed arts philanthropists who has on a number of occasions come handy to a number of arts organisations that find themselves in a cash quagmire saving several such organisations in the country from financial ruin.

But here we are contrary to some of us’ initial doubts 67 Blankets did not die, nor did the organization disappear after a while. In fact 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela thrived and went on to amass several records including smashing the Guinness Book of records twice for the biggest man made blanket. Not only that it also got traction with many would-be knitters from all corners of the country,  and beyond attracting knitting volunteers even inside prisons with prisoners participating apparently with so much enthusiasm as if they have been granted freedom out of the prison walls. 

I must say though that I personally feel ashamed that I never fulfilled my own promise of knitting as every year I have witnessed many participants show off the blankets they had knitted, and a good number of them only learned how to knit through this project. Though Steyn is a trained actress who even had an acting stint on Broad and got married divorced and remarried one of the richest insurance moguls in the country Dow Steyn, the founder of Steyn City among other businesses, it is through 67 Blankets for Mandela project that Carolyn has become famous among ordinary people that participate in the knitting project. The founder of 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela is even popular within prison walls. The founder of the project has personally travelled to a few of them over the years to witness first hand prisoners participate in knitting with enthusiasm unexpected of people imprisoned for crime in society. 

Started as a voluntary project where donors were required to only donate wool and not money, Carolyn however has had to accept money for donations later as several donating companies were offering cash instead of wool to the project. 

The number of knitters has also swelled volunteering their artistic skills of knitting that some of them never knew that they had in the first place.

The Steyns’ spacious home that I have since had the privilege of visiting at least three times in the past few years to speak to Steyn about her now famous story of blankets for the poor looks like a huge factory for blankets when the collection of the completed blankets arrive there from the rest of the country before they are distributed to key points in July to coincide with the annual Mandela Day which falls on July 18, his birth day.

However this year scarves instead of blankets will be distributed on 8 July instead of on July 18, Mandela’s birth day. Just like the blankets in the previous years, the scarves that have been knitted will be distributed at strategically accessible points where the needy can collect them for free and will come handy to fight off the elements. At these key distribution points, an event that happens during the coldest month of the year July, anyone, especially the less privileged can just pick up the scarves, no question asked and off  you go with not only a warm scarf, but an exquisite piece of art created by someone with a good heart and full of love.

In the past when blankest were distributed come distribution time at places such as parks, the beautifully adorned these often dry and deserted places with pieces of art that has been made with love by many people around the country and beyond 

The 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela project has therefore morphed into a movement. It is no longer that project that has its humble beginnings in Houghton. Steyn says that she even gets requests from people overseas wanting to participate in this popular knitting project.

One only needs to talk to Steyn about how the project has been received even in places of depression such as prisons.

“Talking to some of the participating prisoners, I have realized the extent some people find this seemingly simple exercise of knitting liberating. I am actually popular in prisons,” she once told me in one of the visits to her home to speak about the project.  She was speaking about the transformative experience of the prisoners who choose to participate as told to Steyn by some of the prison bosses of the participating prisons.

The truth is the 67 Blankets from its humble origin Houghton in 2014 has exceeded people’s wildest expectations, galvanising communities and bringing joy, hope and comfort to thousands of people around the world.

On the 8th of July scarves will be distributed at sites around the country for people to take and warm themselves during this cold season. Says Steyn “On Wednesday July 8th, we aim to spread joy and warmth all around our beautiful country. Parks and streets will be brightened with our labours of love. Each scarf will have a note attached (in all official languages) reading “I am not lost. If you are cold and need me, please take me. Love, 67 Blankets xxx! This is a fun way to keep our 67 Blankets movement alive. “This is the 5th year that 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day will host this nationwide initiative and we welcome with gratitude anyone wanting to be involved in making scarves and joining our 67 Blanket community.  Ambassadors around the country will co-ordinate the collection of scarves,” says Steyn. 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela is carried out in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation.  For the  list of venues for distribution visit: www.67blankets.co.za

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