It was during this time that the government started looking at merging the National Youth Commission and the Umsobomvu Youth Fund into a single entity, and I must agree that, from a practitioner’s perspective, this made sense.
I felt that there was a gap between the policy initiatives of the National Youth Commission on the one hand and the Umsobomvu Youth Fund’s focus on skills development and funding on the other. It was evident that a holistic approach to youth development was needed, and that it was important to establish an agency that would become a development institute in the true sense of the word.
Then, in June 2011 – a pivotal month in terms of the history of the youth in South Africa – I took over as COO of the NYDA, bringing a combination of policy and activism experience to the fold.
So, was it the NYDA’s holistic approach to youth development that appealed to you most?
Absolutely. I wanted a space from which I would really be able to advance and advocate for the youth of South Africa, and the NYDA is the perfect platform from which to do this. The agency brings together capacity in a range of crucial areas, including finances, human resources, policy and skills development. Also, the NYDA is unique in that it is constantly striving to remain in touch with the situation on the ground, so to speak. Too often, policy is developed at the top, but practical constraints and challenges mean that the initiatives don’t always reach the intended beneficiaries.
The NYDA is a link between the policy developed at the top and the actual implementation at the grass-roots level, and, as such, it plays a critical role. If we are to succeed in moving youth development to the next level, we need to understand the way young people feel. What are their dreams and aspirations, and what do they need in order to achieve their goals? What do they need to be able to contribute to their communities and to play a role in growing the economy? I believe that youth development initiatives should give young people the opportunity to develop themselves, and, specifically, their potential and talent. However, if we are to harness those abilities, we really need to understand what the youth are all about, and that is a key focus of the NYDA – to understand the youth whom we serve.
You are clearly an activist at heart. Do you think that women in South Africa still have much to fight for?
After decades of oppression, the new dispensation brought with it a more equal legislative landscape that finally recognised the rights of women. We have many strong women (and men!) to thank for this, and it is not an achievement we should take lightly. However, to my mind, there are still many women who don’t feel completely entitled to the rights that the Constitution now bestows on us. Somehow, there is a belief that the words ‘gender equality’ are all that was needed, and this is simply not true. We have not achieved equality merely because the government now supports gender equality; equality is a mind-set of society, and, in this regard, we still have a long way to go.
Work needs to be done in both the public and private sector. In government, we now have more women in the Cabinet than ever before, but there is always the risk that such women in top government positions will be seen as tokens who have been appointed simply to meet a quota. The result is that their role maybe limited to the back seat instead of the driving position.
Similarly, the private sector has not in all instances embraced the need for true gender representation. Often, the majority of women in business are found at the lower levels rather than in top-management positions. Alternatively, a woman might be appointed to a top position, but the majority of the remaining workforce is male.
In rural areas, female entrepreneurs looking to purchase land for their businesses usually need to work through a local chief, and many chiefs are still reluctant to grant the same property rights to women as to men. The result is that development and skills are uprooted from the rural areas, as people find that they have no choice but to move to metropolitan cities, which are already suffocating under the pressure of so many residents. The reality is that women must be represented – and be able to express themselves – in each and every crevice of society. This is the only way in which gender equality will become a way of life and of business rather than a matter of quotas. And one cannot lay responsibility for this at the feet of government. Women
themselves must become the pressure point in this regard, constantly fighting to be taken seriously and to be regarded as true equals. Government has given us the legislation with which to fight the battle, but the battle is ours.
And the reality is that women are not mobilised enough. What are we doing about the challenges we face? How are we ensuring that there is proper implementation of government’s policies? What are we doing now to advance the cause of women? The answer? We are doing too little, or nothing at all.
There is clearly a need for women to unite and rally around a common cause. In your opinion, why is this not happening?
We live in a very patriarchal society where girls are taught from a young age to look up to male role models. This trend often persists into adulthood, meaning that we will support and encourage our male friends and colleagues. However, the same is not always true of the women in our lives. There is something I call the pull-her-down syndrome, which is a tendency among women to attempt to prove that other women are incapable of doing their jobs. For example, as a woman, I know that I am quick to judge another woman. She might do the smallest thing that gets on my nerves, and, somehow, that negative attitude remains – and, as a result, I can’t support her in her role.
Perhaps this is the result of so much time spent in a patriarchal society. We are told when we are young to ‘know our place’, and, sometimes, we still feel apologetic for being given a space within which to succeed and achieve. Although we might not feel that way about our own career path, we somehow still apply it to the other women in our lives. So, when we are looking at how we can break free from the patriarchal society and mobilise into action, the first thing we need to look at is how women relate to other women. The camaraderie and sisterhood among women need to develop and grow so that we can gain true strength from one another, and, for this to happen, there needs to be more honesty. For example, we need to be genuine about issues related to women’s empowerment rather than merely paying lip service to it. We really need to get together to talk about societal issues and to find ways of addressing them as women. We need to acknowledge that, while we might not always get along or share the same point of view, we are still going to grow together.
So, women need to develop deeper camaraderie in the workplace. What other lessons are there for women when it comes to the business world?
Women have so many unique skills to bring to the boardroom, but, too often, they question their place. For example, women are great negotiators and mediators – any woman with a young child at home will confirm that! But, too often, we don’t use those skills in the workplace to ensure win-win outcomes for all involved. Women are also very intuitive, which gives them an edge when it comes to strategic moves, since they have a good sense of when to push, when to hold and when to submit. I also believe that, given their traditional caregiver role, women are better positioned to see business as merely a single element that impacts on society and humanity as a whole.
Too often, the business world seems hellbent on making money at the expense of everything else, and events in the United States of America and Greece are proving the consequences of that strategy. I believe that women view business operations more holistically, considering the impact of business decisions on colleagues, employees, families, communities and society as a whole. This characteristic of women has the potential to strengthen organisations and lead to more harmonious environments, and the truth is that this is the way business is heading. If you consider the increasing move towards good corporate governance, environmental awareness and meeting the requirements of the Consumer Protection Act, for example, it becomes clear that the time is right for women to speak up and make their voices heard.
You paint a picture of strong, educated and independent women. Do you think that men may struggle to relate to such a modern-day South African woman?
I believe that both men and women are struggling with their roles. It is true that there are men who grew up surrounded by submissive women, and now they simply have no idea how to relate to strong-willed women who not only make their own money but can also run the household’s budget! However, women are also struggling, since there are many new skills to be learnt now that equality is a legislative reality in South Africa. We are still in a transition phase from a highly oppressed society, and we need to take stock of who we really are and of the type of society we want to build.
It is important that women do not see the struggling of men as an achievement or as the inevitable result of our empowerment. If men and women cannot find a way to construct a new type of relationship, then the family unit – and society by extension – will disintegrate. As women, we are the conceivers of society. We are responsible for creating the societal patterns of the future. For this reason, we need to find a space where men and women can coexist with a new perspective, and within the new challenges that are facing society. We need to discuss how we will manage finances in the house together, and how we will divide the family responsibilities.
Working women face the same pressures as men, yet most of them remain the primary caregivers at home. If we can’t find a way to renegotiate the way the family functions, women may end up responding negatively to all the pressures on them rather than building a new type of family unit with their partners. Personally, I am an educated and driven person, but I am still a woman. I want someone to support and encourage me, and I want us to decide together what our home life will be like and how the responsibilities will be assigned. If we keep talking about these issues and are honest about our needs and concerns, I believe that we will find each other along the way. And a big part of building this new family unit is the way we interact with the boys in our lives. I firmly believe that people treat you the way you allow them to treat you. For this reason, we need to make sure that our sons treat us with respect, understanding that there are no rules for what a girl or woman should and must do, or should not and cannot do. Educating our sons is a critical part of changing the patriarchal nature of our society.
What is your parting advice to young women in South Africa?
The heart of women’s empowerment is the preservation of the values of women, so, if you want to be truly empowered, you need to be comfortable in your own skin. Too often, we expect others to come to our rescue and to advance the cause of women, but we need to empower ourselves by embracing our woman-ness and pushing boundaries both in work and in life.
Be thoughtful about the course you are charting, and know that generations of women after you will follow in your footsteps. We all, as women, need to change society’s receptiveness to us so that the spaces we occupy increase and become more varied. And, if you stumble, remember that the role of women has always been to harness strengths in the most difficult of times. We have always been the backbone of society, and, as such, each of us should take up the role of activist for the rights of women and so contribute to making a meaningful change.
How did your career path lead you to the position of Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA)?
I started out wanting to be a lawyer, so I completed an LLB degree at the University of Durban-Westville, and I was also part of the Aspirant Prosecutor Programme of the National Prosecuting Authority. But, to some extent or another, I have always been involved in activism, so, increasingly, my career started moving into this field. Since a young age, I have been passionate about fighting all forms of oppression, so I ended up working for the Department of Social Development, where I specialised in policy development – and issues related to youth development in particular.
LEADING WIM | Empowerment form Within