By Futhi Mtoba
How auspicious that someone born around the time of the ground-breaking anti-pass march by women to Union Buildings would be leaving such big shoes to fill, not only in her country South Africa, but globally?
The curtain is coming down on Women’s Month in South Africa, but the bigger story of August 2021 is the conclusion of an Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s illustrious career as Executive Director.
Time will immortalise the contribution of one of Africa’s finest daughters, but it is my singular honour to pay tribute to this trailblazer.
From birth to date, Mlambo-Ngcuka’s life seemed predestined for greatness – but greatness earned through acts of service. As much as she is known to the world for her work for eight years at UN Women – the entity of the UN responsible for driving the global agenda for gender equality and the empowerment of women – she has fought for the affirmation of women all her life.
There is not a better send-off gift to salute her selfless gender activism than the milestone reached in March this year. For the first time in history, the global average of women in parliamentary positions reached 25.5% according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).
The annual Women in Parliament report by this global organisation of national parliaments suggests that the world is not on target to achieve gender equality in politics by 2030, although as an all-time high we should pause to acknowledge the leadership of people like Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Having been among South Africa’s first deputy-president, she easily could have revelled in the glory of being the only woman to accomplish the feat. However, knowing her history and commitment to the cause of the underprivileged in general and women, she was bound to use her position at the high table to kick down the doors for other women to follow.
It was during Mlambo-Ngcuka’s tenure at UN Women that a solidarity movement for the advancement of gender equality was promulgated. Known as HeForShe, the genius of this campaign is its insistence that gender inequality is an issue for all.
As a consequence, the movement endeavours globally to harness the support of men and boys for gender equality by acting against negative gender stereotypes and behaviours.
Her involvement in social justice initiatives in apartheid South Africa as a teacher in KwaZulu-Natal during the politically turbulent mid-1980s and her five-year stint in Geneva as Youth Director for the World Young Women’s Christian Association, would have taught her first-hand about the urgency of advocacy for social justice.
It was therefore not surprising that, confronted with UN statistics that 95% of the world’s CEOs and heads of states were men in 2013, she would push for the launch of corrective movements like HeForShe, which enlisted the endorsement of luminaries like President Barack Obama, actor Matt Damon and UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
She outdid herself yet again in Paris this July at the three-day Generation Equality Forum. Even as she was preparing to wrap up her term, she was not done yet. In recognition of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the women of the world, she rallied world leaders, philanthropists and organisations to pledge $40 billion to advance gender equality in the face of the pandemic.
It is early days yet. As potently articulated by IPU’s Secretary-General Martin Chungong in March, “while we celebrate and welcome this all-time high, we feel that progress is painstakingly, or even excruciatingly, slow”.
I am confident knowing Mlambo-Ngcuka shares Chugong’s grim projection that “at the current rate, it will take another 50 years before we can achieve gender parity in parliament”, which is not acceptable.
The struggle continues for sure, but if only for this month, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka can take a bow for a job well done and a life meaningfully lived so far. South Africa and the world owe her a debt of gratitude and appreciation.
Futhi Mtoba is Co-Founder of TEACH South Africa, Trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Former Chairman of Deloitte Southern Africa and Past of President of BUSA.