When in power, exercise it

When South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka served as minister of minerals and energy, a large portrait of a woman miner hung above her desk. On closer examination you realise the miner is Mlambo-Ngcuka herself. ‘I always believe in getting into whatever I am doing,” she laughs.

In an interview for a Gender Links study, Ringing up the Changes: Gender in Southern African Politics, Mlambo-Ngcuka gave a rare insight into her views on power, transformation and the feminist agenda.

Unlike many of the women ministers in the study, who had never planned on a career in politics, Mlambo-Ngcuka, a teacher by profession, warmed to the idea.
‘I did not set out to have a career in politics, but when I got nominated to be an MP I said: ‘That is not a bad thing to do.’

‘Before 1994 I was vociferous about women making themselves available for higher office. The big difference is that I always imagined myself in education.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka’s first shock in politics came when then-president Nelson Mandela appointed her deputy minister of trade and industry.

She confesses: ‘Of all the jobs I have ever done in my life, trade and industry was the most painful. As a woman, the institution was so hard to relate to. The economy was so masculine and I was not an expert. I resorted to defining a niche for myself, to make connections with those we intended to empower. I thought the big boys had enough people worrying about their issues, so I literally blocked off and focused on women and trade.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka left one of the strongest gender units in any of the ministries, a gender policy, the seeds of the South African Women Entrepreneurs’ Network and the annual Technology for Women in Business award.

The then-deputy minister also ensured that women were included on trade delegations as a matter of course. ‘I said to [Minister of Trade and Industry] Alec [Erwin]: ‘No trip leaves this ministry without my signature.’

‘It helped that officials knew that the whole trip they wanted to do could be off if they did not find a woman.”

South Africa also hosted the global Women’s Business Forum, and the Department of Trade and Industry sends sizeable delegations of women to these biannual events.

In particular: ‘We took the Department of Trade and Industry to the rural areas, and it took women from the rural areas, with their intricate handiwork, and put them in New York without a middle person. For me, that is the single most fulfilling thing I did at [the department].”

Her biggest regret in that post was not having done enough about women’s access to credit and finance. ‘It is still a big problem,” she says.

Being a deputy minister proved a good learning ground for the economic sector. ‘Trade and industry served as an anchor for me.” When President Thabo Mbeki took over and appointed her minister of mineral and energy affairs she ‘was vain enough to expect that at least I would get a ministerial post”.

Given the overwhelmingly male face of the mining industry, ‘I had to be realistic that I will not turn this into a woman-dominated industry overnight. I needed to convince women also; it’s been such a hostile history. Between being a minister at the pinnacle of an industry that requires skills that you don’t acquire overnight and needing to push the transformation agenda, I needed room to manoeuvre.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka saw as her ‘teeth” building equity requirements into licensing. ‘One thing I have learned on this job is that when you make changes, you must have the necessary tools. The only way to do this was to have some form of sanction. I built the whole strategy around the licence.”

She proceeded to design the mining charter and a careful strategy for marketing it. ‘It’s good to win people over, but in a position of power you must exercise power.”

The charter, which the minister navigated through stormy waters, begins by recognising the gender and race disparities in South Africa. It states that the government does not intend to nationalise mining—as happened in many newly independent African countries. It covers joint obligations of the government and the industry towards human-resource development.

From a zero starting point, the charter sets a ‘baseline” target of 10% women employed in mining over five years and 26% of ownership of mining-industry assets by historically disadvantaged South Africans in 10 years. Further provisions cover procurement and beneficiation. A scorecard that goes with the charter tracks progress of individual companies.

Mlambo-Ngcuka established women’s associations both in mining and energy.

She recalls how, when she first addressed the energy branch, she told them: ‘The girl child is your first priority.” Asked by a predominantly white male audience to explain what she meant, she said: ‘If a girl child can’t play because she has to go and fetch wood; if she can’t study because there are no lights and she spends all her time fetching firewood to cook, then where is our future?”

Has she felt disadvantaged at any time as a woman in a man’s world? ‘I haven’t given them the opportunity to disadvantage me. I think that I know the powers I have, and I don’t hesitate to use them.

‘What is important is to lead by example, to be on top of my work, not to go to meetings unprepared, to affirm people so that they feel appreciated, not to be too high and mighty so that I give the impression that I know more than they do, because clearly in many cases they know more than I do.”

She notes that all politicians, but women in particular, are under intense public scrutiny: ‘I am very self- conscious. I know that I am under the spotlight. I have to guard my integrity with everything. In this kind of job the assumption is that all politicians are corrupt until proven otherwise.

‘My strength in the changes I want to make will depend on how trustworthy I can be. I am vicious about my integrity.”

Colleen Lowe Morna is a director of Gender Links, an NGO promoting gender equality in the media

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