Hon­our our na­tion’s Mama by em­pow­er­ing oth­ers

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

WHILE thou­sands of peo­ple con­verged on Or­lando Sta­dium on Wed­nes­day to pay trib­ute to Nomzamo Winifred Madik­ize­laMan­dela, I was fa­cil­i­tat­ing the Top Em­pow­er­ment con­fer­ence a few kilo­me­tres away. I knew where my heart was at that time, but my head needed to be some­where else.

I con­soled my­self with the knowl­edge this was prob­a­bly the best way to pay trib­ute to Mama Win­nie, by talk­ing about and in­ter­ro­gat­ing some­thing that was close to her heart.

Em­pow­er­ment is about up­lift­ing those who never had op­por­tu­ni­ties un­der apartheid and re­duc­ing in­equal­ity, poverty and un­em­ploy­ment in our spe­cial coun­try. And South Africa is spe­cial. I don’t think many other na­tions have gone through so much pain and joy in one life­time, some­times at the same time.

As far as em­pow­er­ment goes, it ap­pears we are mak­ing progress, but the progress is not as fast as we ex­pected. The one dif­fer­ence ap­pears to be that more cor­po­rates are re­al­is­ing that em­pow­er­ment is not some­thing to fear, but some­thing that should be em­braced. At pre­vi­ous con­fer­ences on this topic, I al­ways got a sense that most cor­po­rates at­tended be­cause they were look­ing for ways in which to get away with do­ing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble about black eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment and em­ploy­ment eq­uity, two of the pil­lars of em­pow­er­ment.

But, as al­ways, the per­sonal re­flec­tions were spe­cial and none more so than the story of Mar­cia Mayaba, a dealer prin­ci­pal in the male-dom­i­nated mo­tor in­dus­try.

Her story was no dif­fer­ent, but also very dif­fer­ent, to the story of many young women on the Cape Flats, even though she is orig­i­nally from Or­lando East, lit­er­ally a stone’s throw away from where the me­mo­rial for Mama Win­nie took place.

Mayaba was raised by her mother and had to drop out of univer­sity in or­der to raise her two younger sis­ters when her mother died of breast can­cer in 1995. My older sis­ters were taken out of school by my mother when they were con­sid­ered old enough to work. This meant that I was able to get an ed­u­ca­tion at their ex­pense.

Mayaba was ner­vous be­fore de­liv­er­ing her pre­sen­ta­tion and blamed it partly on the fact that she was get­ting mar­ried on April 27, Free­dom Day.

But when the nerves set­tled, she spoke pas­sion­ately about an in­dus­try she loves. She en­cour­aged more women to look for op­por­tu­ni­ties in the in­dus­try.

“I have lost count of how many times I was the first woman, or the first black woman in my ca­reer of more than 20 years. There are too few women, es­pe­cially black women, in the mo­tor in­dus­try. We need to kill gen­der bias in the in­dus­try,” she said.

Gen­der bias in the in­dus­try came to the fore­front last week when char­tered ac­coun­tant Adila Chowan won her case against Im­pe­rial Hold­ings who, the North Gaut­eng High Court found, had im­paired her dig­nity. Im­pe­rial’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Mark Lam­berti, was ac­cused of re­fer­ring to her as an “em­ploy­ment eq­uity” can­di­date when she was over­looked for the po­si­tion of chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer.

This is part of a chal­lenge Mayaba has faced most of her work­ing life. But she said she was not pre­pared to rise to the top on her own. She wanted to take other women with her. There is no bet­ter def­i­ni­tion of em­pow­er­ment. It is about tak­ing peo­ple with you on the jour­ney to suc­cess. It is about shar­ing the wealth in our so­ci­ety so that most peo­ple can be up­lifted.

As I lis­tened to her, I found my­self think­ing about an­other woman whose story has in­spired me in the past week. Ruschda O’Shea, who has been in ed­u­ca­tion for more than 23 years, has just been ap­pointed as the prin­ci­pal of San Souci Girls High School, “the first prin­ci­pal of colour” to have been ap­pointed to this po­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

The news brought a smile to my face – apart from the “first per­son of colour” bit which still irks me 24 years into our democ­racy – be­cause I worked very closely with O’Shea al­most 10 years ago when she was act­ing prin­ci­pal of Crys­tal High School in Hanover Park, where I com­pleted my school­ing.

I re­mem­ber ask­ing her at the time what the school needed and she said they needed a big pot which they could use to give learn­ers soup once a week and uni­forms for the net­ball team.

It was a small re­quest, but it meant so much to the chil­dren at the school.

O’Shea left Crys­tal af­ter the prin­ci­pal, who had been sus­pended, was re­in­stated. She be­came the prin­ci­pal of Tafel­sig High School, where she re­mained for eight years and was a huge suc­cess, rais­ing their ma­tric pass rate to above 90%.

Her com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tion has been re­warded by her ap­point­ment to a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter-re­sourced school.

I am happy about the suc­cess of Mayaba and O’Shea – from very dif­fer­ent but sim­i­lar back­grounds – but can’t help won­der­ing when “the first woman” or “the first black woman” will no longer be news.

We need to move to a point where the ap­point­ment of com­pe­tent women will be the norm and not the ex­cep­tion. And when they are ap­pointed, they must re­ceive all the sup­port they de­serve.

This is what true em­pow­er­ment is about and this should be how we pay trib­ute to Win­nie Madik­ize­laMan­dela.

Fisher is an in­de­pen­dent me­dia pro­fes­sional. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @ry­land­fisher.

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