/ 9 August 2023

Proudly woman, proudly South African

International Women's Day
Photo by Paul Zinken/picture alliance via Getty Images

We, the many South African women, are Proudly Woman, but like the Proudly South African brand, this wonder that is us, is often obscured by negatives — gender-based violence, gender inequality, employment injustice, the list seems endless. 

Despite the negatives and the obstacles, women deal with systemic violence daily and then go on to interact with greater care, compassion, vision and humanity when in positions of power or leadership. 

From our research on the role of women in conflict resolution, mediation and peace building at the Centre for Mediation in Africa, and a project on women social partners in times of crisis there is something fascinating about the mindset, heart and approach of these women. 

Zohra Sooliman, co-founder of the Gift of the Givers believes that the dignity of the people is foremost. 

“You enter communities with care and respect, in the same way as I would expect respect for myself, while knowing and recognising where you are limited. You work alongside the people, there is no hero mentality. And you ask them, ‘how do I enter your community?’” 

For Busisiwe Mavuso, chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa, the opportunities that are given to some women entails trust. 

“It is about understanding the duties bestowed upon us [and when in these spaces where we have access to] power that should be used for empowerment. Our role is to bring the voice that has been missing. You must be radical; have a vision and you must be courageous.” 

Although much has been written about women leadership little is known about how minority leaders, such as South African women in business and in NGOs, experience and manage conflict in their positions, work environment and in their communities. 

From the African feminist tradition, we identified that these women seek cooperation and peace. 

African women appreciate the interconnectedness of their lives to their circumstances and weave their way through negotiation, reaching a settlement by accommodating the perspective of the other. They collaborate and compromise. 

These women exhibit a radical resistance to the war within and the war experienced in their daily lives. With all of this chaos and violence, their goal is peace. Positive peace. 

Positive peace focuses on nurturing societal attitudes that build peaceful societies while working towards sustainable investments in economic development. 

For Busisiwe Mavuso, being positioned in a male-centric environment, while bringing the voice that was missing, speaking truth to power and contending with comments like “you need to reign her in” meant that she had to know her own self-worth. 

She maintains that all the female leadership traits that were previously considered “soft traits of empathy, of wanting to take everyone along, of consensus building. I think that maybe we should all agree that in the environment in which we all find ourselves, for the moment, soft is the new hard.” 

It is these qualities and traits that are required to move the country forward.  

An achiever with ubuntu feels lonely and inadequate to be successful alone. They wish to uplift others to their level or even above their level. 

They don’t compete, they cooperate with others in the quest for human progress. 

From an Islamic ethical perspective, it is a sense of building together and supporting each other because ummah is one body. Women as mothers know that to manage the trust in their hands, they need to be present, and constantly work to uplift the impressionable souls. 

These nurturing instincts manifest in their leadership positions when interacting with others who are often vulnerable. 

This requires presence. Being present fully and being aware allows one to build the nation from within while reinvigorating ethical discipline and taming the egoist self. This is learnt from ubuntu and ummah philosophical codes. 

Ubuntu is about humanness, humility, sharing, inclusiveness and putting others first before you. 

Zohra Sooliman is cognisant of this in her every interaction. It is about knowing that “I am coming to you, to meet you where you are, to make that connection, and it is at this point that trust levels open up.”

Social trust is fundamental to peaceful, sustainable societies affording citizens the opportunity to “live the good life”. Women open these doors. 

Research has shown that when there is a greater representation of women on company boards or in management there is a better management of risks, greater inclusiveness and collaboration and a resurgence of ethical behaviour. For our efforts to bear fruit, we need a reinvigoration of ethical behaviour, across the board.  

Individuals and societies must refine and improve their ethical system before seeking to advance their materialistic developments, science, and technology. 

This is a wisdom of old, nestled in the philosophies of ubuntu, ummah and African feminism. These traditions advocate for ethical living, which will positively impact the social and political conditions of people and whole societies. And it is done best when we work together. 

Unlike Western feminism which is based on sex differences and seeks competition with men, African feminism embraces men and values the complementarity of gender roles. It seeks cooperation with men so that together we can fight the bigger battles that undermine humanity and the prospects for a happy and peaceful life. 

These women have no qualms to work with men, to learn from them and to seek advice from them. The women social partners in the research study manifest these philosophical underpinnings inherent in their cultures, traditions and spiritualities and unlike the competitiveness usually found among men, they maximise collaboration and collective effort.  

In all of this, ethics is the key. 

The Moroccan philosopher Taha Abdurrahman says: “There is no humanity without ethics.” A person becomes more human as they increase their ethical practice. 

Social partners have grasped the benefit of nurturing ethical partnerships which focus on human dignity. It is here, in these pockets of influence, that women leaders are shifting the dynamics of human interaction, building trust and affirming respect for each person’s dignity. 

These efforts help tame the flames of conflict and contribute to peacebuilding. 

From a business perspective, peacebuilding is an enabler of development, social and economic justice, and reconciliation. As South Africa heads towards the general elections, we need to remember that in a violence-impacted society like ours, we must face the war within our broken and tortured identities to start the healing and to prepare for a better future. We don’t need populist politics and more hate. We need leaders with integrity.

When people are vested in long-term projects that are profitable and sustainable, peacebuilding is a central tool of value that must not be seen as an add-on or afterthought. 

Peacebuilding allows for transformation, trust and tolerance. This is what we need to heal and to move forward. 

Zohra says there is an awakening among social partners and citizens in South Africa who are  saying we need leaders who work in synergy for the best interests of our people. We need sincerity, people who work with honesty and a sense of accountability, where we use resources to the maximum as we are accountable to the donors and the community. 

We need to work with integrity and give back. This is our country.

By working to lift all those over whom we have influence, we lift ourselves. That is the unselfish, natural process that governs a South African woman’s purposefulness. It is from within our authentic civilisational and spiritual roots that we will overcome. 

We are, after all, Proudly South African, Proudly Woman, Proudly African.

Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is a post-doc researcher at the National Institute for Humanities and the Social Sciences & Centre for Mediation in Africa.

Dr Nomusa Mlondo is the director of research services in the office of the premier, Mpumalanga provincial government.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.