Breaking through glass ceilings

This month we celebrate today’s revolutionaries. We recognise women who are making effective use of their power and authority in new and innovative ways. Whereas the revolutionaries of history were inevitably women in politics, today we see glass ceilings splintering across the country.

We take a small sampling of those who are breaking through. In politics, our honours go to three women who are attempting to put the fight against HIV and Aids on the top of the national agenda. In addition, with Gender Links, we profile three women who embody the spirit of local government, which is at the coalface of governance because it is the level at which development succeeds or fails.

Also, at the coalface of another sort are the women who are the centre of an extraordinarily restive wage negotiating round. After 13 years of accepting inflation-based increases, workers want to benefit from the economic boom and from their position of relative skill. In business, we salute a woman who has put workers’ safety first.

In Cape Town, whatever your political stripe, it is clear that mayor Helen Zille is a woman of substance and of political action. And in our mix are the chroniclers and activists who continue to make civil society in South Africa a vibrant sector of change and of the change which must still come.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

The former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala­-Routledge lost her job because she is not a consummate politician. Instead, Madlala-Routledge endeared herself to the nation with her honest approach and her activist spirit.

Here she is pictured having a public Aids test as part of the Sunday Times campaign on mass testing. She is the first member of the executive to do so. Statistics show that if more leaders test publicly or speak out about Aids, stigma is reduced.

Appointed as the deputy minister of health in 2004, Madlala-Routledge was only given the political space to work properly in 2006. Together with the Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, she stewarded the National Strategic Plan on HIV and Aids.

She is out of an executive job now and back on Parliament’s backbench. Perhaps she will return under a new administration in 2009?

Nomonde Xundu

A doctor by training, Nomonde Xundu is a no-nonsense women who is the architect of the National Strategic Plan on HIV and Aids. Last year she worked tirelessly through at least 10 drafts of the plan to ensure that it was owned by civil society and the government.

This was read as a turning point for South Africa, still the nation with the highest HIV infection rate in the world.

Xundu needs support in her job and, with the loss of the deputy health minister, the jury’s out on how long she will stay. Women of her experience and calibre are in great demand globally.

Najma Ahmed

Najma Ahmed, a councillor now in her second term in the Msunduzi Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, entered local government in 2000 when she ran on the DA ticket. ‘I stand for good clean governance. I want to be accountable and really try to put a smile on somebody’s face and to really reach out to people. When campaigning, you have to be yourself and gain the people’s trust, you don’t have put up fancy stuff and camouflage, people can read you and see through you generally.”

Last year Ahmed was elected as a proportional representation (PR) councillor for the ANC after leaving the DA. As a PR councillor, she is no longer responsible for a particular ward but goes where her party deploys her. She still has constituents from her previous ward calling her for assistance. ‘I can’t say no or turn people away. Where I can help I do, if I can’t I refer them to the ward councillor.” Her constituents agree: ‘You can get to her; she has empathy and can feel for the problem because she can relate to the problem … She gives more than the average eight-to-five councillor. She has become a role model.”

Yolanda Cuba

Since July 1, Yolanda Cuba has been CEO of both Mvelaphanda Holdings and the Mvelaphanda Group. At 29 years old, she has set a new benchmark in her accession to the heights of corporate power. She holds a BCom in statistics from the University of Cape Town and a BCom Honours from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

She is a qualified lawyer who sits on several other boards. This week Cuba set alight the Mail & Guardian critical thinking forum when she declared that the glass ceiling had been shattered and that women who complained of one victimised themselves. Cuba was not born with a silver spoon; she is a self-made businesswoman, she put herself through university and climbed the corporate ladder through guts and determination.

Pregs Govender

The former ANC MP is now a trainer and consultant. Her consultancy is called Love in Politics (LIP), a name which embodies her philosophy of the principled and loving approach to politics. For this, she gave up her job at Parliament because she refused to approve the arms deal or accept President Thabo Mbeki’s dalliance with HIV denial.

A former trade unionist, Govender continues to train workers. In addition, she is a global expert on gender budgets — an economic initiative to ensure that women and gender equality programmes receive a requisite share of the fiscal pie.

Elsabe Jacobs

Elsabe Jacobs has been a DA councillor in the Umjindi local council in Mpumalanga since March last year, but her focus on consulting with and including all of her constituents on the issues that affect them is paying dividends.

Her constituency includes a great diversity of cultures and socio-economic status, and the key to her success is her talent for open and honest communication. Before she calls committee meetings, Jacobs goes to each block in her ward to gather information on all the issues that need to be addressed. She then draws up a memo which is sent to community members and serves as the meeting notification as well as the agenda. This homework makes it possible for meetings to focus on solutions rather than problems: ‘I want us to discuss what we are going to do about them and prevent them from happening again. By so doing, we are planning ahead.” She adds that while she doesn’t necessarily know everything about everything, ‘what I can do is to be visible to my people, and get their input”.

Nandi Mayathula-Khoza

Nandi Mayathula-Khoza, member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) responsible for Community Development in the City of Johannesburg, has made it her business to empower women councillors and promote gender equality through the work of the largest municipal council in Southern Africa. As former mayor of Soweto and speaker of the City of Johannesburg, she has championed a Women Development Strategy. ‘Wherever I have been, I have used my space to empower women because of the triple oppression of race, gender and class that the majority of women in this country have experienced. We have an important role to play in transforming local government, which has been predominantly white and male. I have tried to get other women on board to share that vision.”

A veteran of the Soweto student uprisings against the teaching of Afrikaans in black schools in 1970, Mayathula-Khoza cut her teeth in the South African National Civic Organisation. ‘I strongly believe that you can’t represent people if you don’t involve them. I am responsible for the empowerment of women in the community, so — I continue to make good use of whatever space I have.”

Vytjie Mentor

Vytjie Mentor is an ANC MP who chairs the portfolio committee on private members’ legislative proposals and special petitions. She reached national prominence when she helped a young parliamentary aide who brought sexual harrassment charges against the party’s former chief whip, Mbulelo Goniwe. She is an outspoken proponent of women’s rights. Mentor also sits on the portfolio committee on education, the committee of chairpersons, the joint rules committee, the National Assembly rules committee and the committee on public service and administration. A qualified teacher, Mentor is a community development activist with a passion for education, health, women, children, the aged and the disabled.

Helen Zille

Helen Zille is Cape Town’s mayor and the leader of the Democratic Alliance. She took over from Tony Leon as party leader this year in a landslide electoral victory.

A journalist by training, she is now a media darling. Zille is a politician with both style and substance: she has cleaned out the Cape Town City Council and won approval from a range of constituents. The ANC still yaps at her heels, claiming that she represents white Cape Town, but her governing record is making it increasingly hard for this accusation to stand up.

A workaholic, Zille keeps up a punishing schedule, but remains a committed family woman. Asked what her husband is called if she is madam mayor, she says her children call him mayor-naise.

Cynthia Carroll

Anglo American’s new boss is not a new broom that sweeps clean: she is more like a hurricane that has blown through the crusty corridors of one of the world’s richest resource empires.

Last week blood hit the floors when two divisions lost their heads. AngloGold Ashanti’s Bobby Godsell quit as chief executive and Anglo Platinum chief executive Ralph Havenstein walked the plank. Although Godsell said it had always been his intention to retire early, Havenstein was reportedly pushed. Carroll made no bones about her reasons. Anglo Platinum’s safety standards were unacceptable and she wanted an executive who shared her vision of zero fatality.

While the boys in the analyst industry are making unhappy sounds, we salute her spirit of putting safety first.

Elize Strydom

Elize Strydom leads employers in a hard industry. Mining is South Africa’s bedrock sector and it has boomed in the past two years as it has fed China’s appetite for resources. This year, employees want a slice of the action and Strydom is the industry’s chief negotiator.

She is one of the private sector’s few female chief negotiators. A lawyer by training, Strydom has qualifications in labour, tax and company law. She represents the mining houses within Business Unity South Africa and she represents business at Nedlac, the tripartite negotiating forum of business, labour and the government.

Mmatshilo Motsei

Mmatshilo Motsei is an author, women’s rights activist and creative strategist who has achieved many awards in the fields of gender violence and health.

She is working closely with the Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (Adapt) NGO in Alexandra, an organisation she founded in 1992, aimed at combating domestic violence while encouraging quality care for victims of violence at hospitals and other institutions. In 1995 Motsei coordinated the creation of a policy document on women’s empowerment for the new government’s presidential office. She has done revolutionary work in introducing the concept of art in healing, which she began in 1999, using theatre as a means to facilitate social transformation. Motsei has numerous publications to her name, the latest a book called The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court — a critical look at last year’s rape trial of Jacob Zuma and, in particular, its reflection on gender images in South Africa. Motsei’s vast contributions were recognised at this year’s Shoprite Checkers/SABC 2 Woman of the Year Awards, where she was a finalist in the category of arts, culture and communications.

Shireen Pardesi

Born to a family of anti-apartheid activists, one might argue that Shireen Pardesi was destined to settle conflicts. She grew up in the struggle and served as ANC branch chairperson in Pinetown. A teacher by profession, she became Sadtu’s gender convenor and negotiator in 1995, before being appointed Cosatu’s provincial treasurer in 2000. In 2003 Sadtu appointed her as its chief negotiator, where her work earned her widespread acclaim in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sector.

Pardesi currently serves as chief negotiator for the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council, representing eight unions with a joint membership of 1,6-million. Most recently, she played a pivotal role in making sure the public sector strikes — in which organised labour flexed its muscles and brought the health and education services to their knees — resulted in above-inflation increases and better benefits for professionals such as teachers and nurses.

Women in print

The Book of South African Women (Mail & Guardian)


Many of these women plus more than 400 others are profiled in our Book of South African Women out this week. The women are drawn from across the private, public and civil society sectors in our effort to develop a comprehensive directory of leaders.

In addition, all the empowerment industry charters are contained in a resources section at the back of the book. We’ve extracted the provisions for women and attempted to assess progress. This has not been easy because not many industries are up to date on reporting.

In addition, we have included a list of leading women’s organisations for the first time. The book is published in association with Nedbank.

If you’d like to buy one, contact Thuli Makhubu on 011 250 7300 or email [email protected].

Women’s organizations and democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority by Shireen Hassim (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press)

A meticulous history of women’s organisations in South Africa, Hassim’s book extends into the post-apartheid period and probes why one of the world’s most vibrant and effective women’s movements has become moribund.

This is a must-read for any student of gender and politics in South Africa. It is dense and detailed: the appendices alone run to almost 100 pages.

Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination by Pregs Govender (Jacana Media)

Many M&G readers have been waiting for this book. It is Pregs Govender’s beautifully written memoir. It is riveting for its fly-on-the-wall account of the fight inside the ANC on the arms deal and the details of the denial years during which President Thabo Mbeki tried to win his party’s support for his views on HIV and Aids.

But, in addition to the political account, it is also a wonderful account of an insubordinate child who grew into a delightfully contrarian woman. As a political veteran, Ahmed Kathrada said at the book’s launch this week, it was a story of a woman ‘who refused on principle to kowtow to certain practices and beliefs”.

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