Sunday Times

Why do we speak with forked tongues about empowering women?

- Makhudu Sefara

President Cyril Ramaphosa hit all the right notes when he paid tribute to Charlotte Maxeke on the 150th anniversar­y of her birth. Yet it seems we have learnt almost nothing from her richly layered legacy. Maxeke is not just the name of a student dormitory at the University of Limpopo, or a hospital in Johannesbu­rg; she represents the finest to come out of this country. Her politics were predicated on an understand­ing of systems, ideologies and complex layers that make up our identities, not what she stood to benefit from pushing a particular line.

She was the first black SA woman to get a bachelor of science. She obtained the degree at Wilberforc­e University in Ohio, US, decades ahead of pronouncem­ents by Hendrik Verwoerd that black people, much less women, were hewers of wood and drawers of water. It speaks volumes about her.

Ramaphosa knew this, so he made a play on her propensity for education and hard work. Speaking at Gqudesi village, Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape, he said Maxeke “knew that leadership must be based on knowledge, competence, experience, dedication and hard work”. But 100 years after Maxeke so powerfully taught us, some of her comrades still voted for a leader like Jacob Zuma, without knowledge, without competence, whose experience was in wrong things and whose dedication and hard work in enriching his family is without question.

The irony of his son Duduzane, also known as a Gupta acolyte, posting videos of his high life while telling the so-called RET (radical economic transforma­tion) forces that he intends being ANC president is not lost on us. The less said of the other less qualified, the Hlaudi Motsoeneng sorts, the better.

Today the ANC is on the cusp of disintegra­tion, whose genesis is the election of the leader who ought not to have been, our former president who for nine years vowed to protect and uphold a constituti­on that he is peeing on today to escape accountabi­lity.

Ramaphosa knew, too, Maxeke’s heart and the servant leadership she bequeathed this generation. “If you can rise,” he quoted Maxeke, “bring someone with.” He reminded us of her altruistic spirit, saying that when she went to Wilberforc­e, where she was mentored by panAfrican scholar WEB Du Bois, among others, she also used the opportunit­y to make preparatio­ns for those who came after her to access education. How apt. Altruism and our political landscape today are like oil and water. And I am not even talking about DA leaders who use their black counterpar­ts, if we must elevate them to leadership, as “experiment­s”.

Would it not be nice to see prominent women and men in our country pull each other up in the same way that Maxeke taught us to make the ladder of success accessible to those who come after us? In an era when some take pride at being the only ones to achieve, she sought to empower well ahead of any empowermen­t initiative­s that 100 years later are in vogue.

Ramaphosa did not have to drop anyone’s name when he said: “She was discipline­d. And this is what is needed now. Leaders must be focused on the people, not themselves. She would have stayed clear of factions. She would have said no to corruption. She would have known that corruption in the ANC is like poison.” The message was loud and clear, even to corruption-accused ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule.

Despite the many lessons from Maxeke, our world remains unfair to women, including women at the top, trying to stay afloat as executives. Take African Bank’s former CEO Basani Maluleke, the first black woman to lead a bank. Was she successful at the job? Absolutely. She took over when the bank was hardly out of the woods, following curatorshi­p after a near collapse.

Writing about her success, Wendy Luhabe says: “African Bank’s net promoter score — the measure of customers who are likely to recommend a company, product or a service to a friend or colleague — improved from 36 to 52 year on year. This is a critical customer feedback tool to maintain a customer base and grow a business. A score of 52 means African Bank increased its pool of promoters. It now has an employee engagement score of 51, which compares very favourably to the industry benchmark of 38. The engagement score indicates the preparedne­ss of employees to go beyond the call of duty to deliver on the business’s strategy. This speaks volumes about the culture Maluleke nurtured when at the helm.

“The bank’s brand image was successful­ly rebuilt after it suffered severe reputation­al damage during its curatorshi­p, destroying almost all the trust customers and the market had in the brand. The growth that has been achieved in retail deposits also demonstrat­es that trust has been restored and customers have more confidence in the bank.”

Despite this, the male-dominated board at African Bank still spewed her out after three years of hard work.

The pathfinder that Maluleke is, the student of

Maxeke that she is, she found a culture at African Bank that militated against her stay and she left without a job. It is well and good for Ramaphosa and all of us to speak in glowing terms about Maxeke. But of what value are our words if qualified, capable women are publicly fought off like Maluleke and the bank explains nothing to no-one?

Let’s park the soporific. Nthabeleng Likotsi is a 36-year-old woman worth celebratin­g. She applied and, within two years, qualified to be the first woman to own a mutual bank. She and her team are in the process of setting up and will offer shares from June. Like Maxeke, she is not limited by what those who came before her could not achieve. She’s comfortabl­e in being, like Maxeke, a pathfinder, an innovator and an over-achiever.

There is so much in Maxeke to emulate. May we not just speak about her many positive contributi­ons. May we learn from her. May we be her.

A pathfinder, an innovator and an overachiev­er. There is so much in Maxeke to emulate. May we learn from her

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