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Refilwe Ledwaba, 41

Executive director, pilot, blogger and lecturer
South African Women in the Aviation and Aerospace Industries, and Girls Fly in Africa Programme
Johannesburg

Refilwe Ledwaba did not take a conventional route into aviation. Her experience in this regard is the reason she founded South African Women in the Aviation and Aerospace Industries (SAWIA). The non-profit was founded in 2009, representing women and girls in this industry across the Southern African Development Community region. “I did not start building model aeroplanes or helicopters at the age of five or six; neither did I have a relative who took me flying when I was young. This is normally the traditional story for most pilots,” she says.

Her founding of SAWIA and the organisation’s subsequent establishment of the Girls Fly in Africa Programme is based on a belief that it is important for people to see examples of others who look like them in a profession in order to be able to imagine themselves in that profession.

Initially setting her sights on medicine, Ledwaba was studying towards a bachelor of sciences degree at the University of Cape Town when she boarded a plane one day to find that one of the pilots was a woman. “That day changed the course of my life forever.

“I had never seen anyone who looks like me becoming a pilot. The closest I had seen a pilot was Tom Cruise in one of his movies on TV and he did not look like me at all.”

After completing her studies, she joined an airline as a cabin attendant. “I got to understand the industry and the opportunities available. I took lessons privately, using half of my salary for training and the other half to settle my student loans.”

Ledwaba was then selected to join the South African Police Service’s cadet programme and worked for the police for 10 years, attaining the highest civilian helicopter licence as the first black woman to do so. She went on to obtain a commercial aeroplane licence, became an instructor and recently obtained a drone pilot licence. She is currently working on her drone instructor’s rating.

What Ledwaba noticed about transformation when she went into aviation is that the lack of representation of women is not a uniquely South African issue. “According to The International Society of Women Airline Pilots, in 2018 women accounted for just 5.18% of the pilots at 34 major airlines in the world,” she says. “Globally, women account for 3% of airline captains. Looking at Nordic countries, which are at the forefront of gender equality, the percentage is 8.2% in Sweden and 12% in Finland. Anecdotal evidence shows that South Africa’s percentage is a little over 13% of female representation.”

While many public and private initiatives are working to address this issue, the biggest challenge is coordination, according to Ledwaba. “As such, we have a lot of trained, technically qualified personnel sitting at home after millions were spent on their training because they do not have enough experience to enter the aviation market. So, we cannot only solve one area like training and not look at how we can integrate them or create programmes for them to gain the required experience in the industry.”

In my 20 years in the industry and from advice I received early on in my career, I discovered that there were far more people who wanted me to succeed than those that did not. I seek those people out.

Author - Sandiso Ngubane
Thobeka Ndlovu, 30

Thobeka Ndlovu, 30

Thobeka Ndlovu is known in her community as the person to go to when looking for work. Having worked in human resources for nine years, she uses her experience and expertise to tackle the issue of unemployment in South Africa, one job seeker at a time.

Her Facebook group, Career Hot-Spot, is a free resource for the unemployed, inspired by Ndlovu’s desire to uplift and empower black graduates. “My passion is sharing my knowledge,” she says.

While interning in the HR department of the KwaZulu-Natal treasury in 2013, Ndlovu noticed a need for a go-between to link graduates and the sectors they hoped to find work in. “I realised that while they have the qualifications, a lot of the graduates from our black communities don’t know how to write CVs, how to dress or how to respond in interviews,” she says.

She decided to start using her degree in industrial psychology and her HR experience to guide young graduates through the job-seeking experience. She began offering to help unemployed people in her community by rewriting their CVs and creating profiles for them on job seeking websites.

Now, nine years on, Ndlovu has a host of success stories under her belt, from guiding uncertain matriculants to graduate from university to seeing her clients upskill their way into management positions. “My biggest gift is getting people to align with their passions,” she says.

Careers Hot-Spot, her Facebook group, is dedicated to connecting job seekers and relevant opportunities, sharing career tips and answering questions about employment. The group has more than14 000 members, and is accessed by people all over South Africa. It aims to “encourage youth education and black excellence”.

Thanks to her full-time job as an HR journalist, Ndlovu prides herself on being able to guide her Career Hot-Spot community on a meaningful and personal level. “When I coach people, it’s not from Google,” she says, “it’s based on practical experience that I’ve gained over the years.”

She says it has always been obvious that her career would revolve around helping other people. “I tell people that I didn’t fall into HR accidentally,” she says. “I was always going to be in HR or psychology. It just matches my personality.”

But the work she does runs deeper than just her altruistic nature; Ndlovu has a deeply personal reason for dedicating her time to finding opportunities for the unemployed. In 2013, her brother was jobless but keen to find work as a policeman. When Thobeka saw a job advert for traffic officers, she encouraged him to apply. Due to poor planning, too many people were invited to the initial selection process than the venue could handle, and her brother was trampled to death. “People were so desperate that they were pushing each other,” she says.

I lost my brother in the process of him trying to find a job in this country,” Thobeka reflects. “Now I strive to give back to my community, in remembrance of him, so no one finds themselves in the same situation.

Mmabatho Makotanyane, 32

Mmabatho Makotanyane, 32

Journalist Mmabatho Makotanyane heard some terrible stories of hardship and abuse during her days as a local reporter. Gradually, she felt the need to do more than simply write about them before moving on to the next sad story.

“As a community journalist I met women in dire circumstances, but as a journalist you have to develop a thick skin and you’re not allowed to be emotionally involved. I felt I wasn’t doing much so I thought what can I do to help?” she says.

She started small by posting encouraging and supportive thoughts and advice on Facebook, and began receiving replies from people saying they felt more empowered since they started following her. That led to her creating her own company, MM Communications, as a platform through which she posts information to promote other women and their businesses. “If there’s someone doing exceptional work, I talk about them on social media and help to build their brand,” she explains.

Next she decided to organise sessions to bring women together to discuss issues of concern, which can range from personal problems, career and work-related issues, confidence and self-esteem to social relationships, finances and parenting. The women are able to learn from others who have faced similar fears or challenges, as well as hearing from professional advisers.

“Because of my background in journalism, I had a pool of women like psychologists and social workers who could be my speakers,” Makotanyane says. She also went through some mentoring herself in preparation, and sought out women in different fields who could be brought on board as speakers.
The sessions proved so fruitful for the participants that she now organises one every three months. Most last for an afternoon, but the format could change after a recent meeting that lasting for a full weekend proved more impactful.

“It’s not just conversations – it’s training women and mentoring them and opening up opportunities and giving them the tools to start their own businesses,” she explains. “It’s done to restore hope in the lives of women because when a woman is down, her family won’t prosper.”
As an example of their success, one participant heard a powerful businesswomen speak about coming from a very humble background, which inspired her to train as a social worker and open her own practice. She now works in partnership with another woman she met at the event. Another speaker described how she had turned her life around, which inspired another woman in an abusive relationship to leave and create a new future.

The sessions benefit Makotanyane too. “I’ve also had my fair share of challenges in life and when I help other women through different challenges, I also help myself, because these empowering sessions are therapeutic with women feeling safe and confident to talk to each other.”
Makotanyane also works as the communications manager for Rhiza Babuyile, a developmental organisation. Its work in disadvantaged communities spans mobile healthcare clinics, skills training and enterprise development hubs that offer mentoring for entrepreneurs. Part of her role is to publicise its successes and inspire others through her storytelling.

There’s this notion that women are jealous of each other, but through our sessions we see women come together with the vision of empowering each other.

Mpho Motloung, 39

Mpho Motloung, 39

When her daughter had her period for the first time, Mpho Motloung wanted to make sure her menstruating experience was a positive one. What started as a mother’s care package has since blossomed into Petals SA, a social enterprise dedicated to ending the stigma around menstruation.

Motloung, a mentorship programme manager, has always had an interest in youth development and education. “There’s power in a young person having someone they can look up to,” she says.

In December 2020, she gave her daughter a gift box when she started her period. It contained period products, informative brochures, and self-care items such as bath bombs and confectionery. “I didn’t want her to have the same negative experience as myself,” Motloung says. “With all these myths around periods, I wanted her to have accurate information.”

Her daughter took the present to school to show her friends, and soon Motloung was overwhelmed with requests from teachers and parents asking her to make them “period boxes” — and Petals SA was born.

Motloung refers to Petals SA as a social enterprise, rather than a business, as making money is not the organisation’s primary goal. “The period box serves as a vehicle to get people to our platform and join in the conversation around periods,” she says.

She primarily uses TikTok (where Petals SA has more than 20 000 followers) and Instagram to post a combination of humorous videos, informative posts and interactive quizzes. To ensure her message is landing with her target audience, she works closely with her daughter.

“Being relatable is very important, and that’s where my daughter comes in,” says Motloung. “She advises me on what teenagers like, what language they use and how to make videos that they can connect to.”

The personal element of Petals SA is crucial for Motloung. “Many organisations do amazing things to end period stigma and poverty,” she says. “But they mostly just dump period products on menstruators.”

Her venture places emphasis on education around periods in a way that is accessible to young people. “We avoid using jargon. A 12-year-old doesn’t want to know what progesterone is; they want to know things like if it’s normal to get menstrual clots.”

Since starting the online Petals SA community, Motloung has received some negative feedback, mainly from parents. “Many people have said I need to stop talking about vaginas and blood so much,” she laughs, adding that negative comments actually motivate and inspire her to keep spreading her message.

While Petals SA is still a young enterprise, Motloung has big dreams for it. She hopes her site will grow into a trusted online hub for menstruators. “I would like to create a space where everyone who wants to ask about periods can,” she says.

She was recently invited by Lil-lets to join their team and answer period-related questions on their online portal, and she is using this insight to grow Petals SA. “People aren’t asking the generic questions you see on other websites,” she says. “I’m hoping to take this experience and use it to make my site as informative as possible.”

Growing up, I was fed the wrong information about periods. I don’t want my daughter, or anyone, to have the same experience. Giving period products to menstruators is just part of the solution; there is a lot of education that is needed as well.

Nonkululeko Mtshali, 34

Nonkululeko Mtshali, 34

Nonkululeko Mtshali is a young woman with a calling. She wanted to be a lawyer, but has instead dedicated her life to her non-profit organisation, which she founded at just 21 years old.

Vintage Girls Organisation provides opportunities to young girls, from ages five to 22, in disadvantaged communities around Tembisa in Gauteng. The organisation was established in 2013 and Mtshali has been its champion ever since.

Mtshali believes in her ancestors. She was raised by her grandmother, who taught her from an early age that she was special. Her grandmother told her: “This you must know — whoever is going to help you in your life, they are not helping you, they are training you to be strong in order for you to get to where you are supposed to be. That will be when you understand.”

She adds: “I am doing my ancestors’ work. In this organisation, I feel my spirit is calm.” The word vintage alludes to “something from the past of high quality” and the name is a reminder to Mtshali of her roots.

While in grade 12, Mtshali suffered an episode which she credits to her ancestors calling her. A shock encounter with a pregnant 13-year-old motivated her to ask herself how she could help — how she could use her skills as a traditional dancer and netball player to enrich the lives of her peers — and the Vintage Girls Organisation was born.

The organisation provides after-school programmes to young girls, teaching them how to apply themselves to their education. It boasts a traditional dance group, drum majorettes, a netball club and art lessons. Her vision is to establish an environment where young girls can go to express their creativity in order to make changes to themselves and their community. “I smile when I see young girls smiling, because I know their pain. If I can help, it makes me excited.”

The organisation is sustained by donations and sponsorships within the community. Through the assistance of the Gauteng legislature, Mtshali is working on a plan that will ensure its continued existence, as without funding, the organisation will fail. Her wish is to see young girls grow into successful women and build their own futures. “As women, we continue to fight; we never stop, because that is who we are.”

In 2017 Mtshali received a runner-up award for the Best Young Philanthropist. She says that being nominated for Mail & Guardian Power of Women is important to her, as it means that her work is being seen and appreciated by others, for which she is grateful. “I want to know who I am and where I am going.”

Mtshali deserves her recognition. The name Tembisa is an Nguni word, meaning “promise” and “hope”. Mtshali brings both to her community and to the young girls whom she cares for so deeply.

Vintage Girls is not just an organisation, it is a calling that will grow with me until I die. I live for Vintage Girls; it is my life.

S’phelele Moshobane, 30

S’phelele Moshobane, 30

S’phelele Moshobane struggled to find mentors as a young black woman with business aspirations and no one to help her achieve her dreams. In 2016, she set out to change the narratives for others by founding The Noble Woman, “an initiative that aims to expose, empower and engage women from all walks of life to become a success using their individual skills and talents”.

Through the organisation, she is helping others to become active contributors to society, starting with her home province, Limpopo. The Mrs South Africa 2021 finalist is adamant that advice without tools is obsolete and therefore doesn’t only help women with access to information, but tries to arm them with the tools to monetise their skills.

“My proudest moment has been witnessing a lady who was so charged following one of my events in 2016 that she started her own vegetable garden. Today, she supplies various chain stores nationwide,” she shares.

Moshobane says realising that she was on the back foot is what spurred her towards the establishment of The Noble Woman, hosting dinners to create a platform for women in her community to learn, equip themselves with the necessary knowledge and network. “The events cover every aspect of life, including social and economic. We offer mentorship and cater for both women and girl children by hosting quarterly boot camps for the latter.”

She adds: “When we came into this world, we found systems in place. We found narratives which were passed on to us. As times changed from agricultural to industrial, and from the industrial to the information age, and now the fourth industrial revolution, those narratives and systems never changed.

“Instead of waiting for a ‘saviour’, I made a decision to become that voice for other women to grow and realise their fullest potential.”

In addition to running The Noble Woman, Moshobane serves her community as a board member for an organisation that works with people living with Down syndrome in N’wamitwa, Limpopo. “I do this because I’m passionate about finding solutions for the betterment of society, especially for those among us who don’t have the resources available to them to make the necessary changes they need in their lives.”

She is also the director of her own company, Glow Media. Her purpose — which is to “advocate for women and the girl child” — is what keeps her up at night, and entering Mrs South Africa, a pageant for married women, is her way to show others that “your life is not over” once you are betrothed.

“It’s one thing to tell people what I believe in, but actions speak louder. I want to show people that the possibilities are endless, whether you are married, divorced, young or old,” she says. “I am a mother to four girls. I want them to see their mother as a great example. I want them to grow up knowing not to stop going after their dreams and achieving great things.”

I aspire to build leaders who will lead and mentor others. I also aspire to establish hubs where women and girl children will have access to resources and mentorship in business.

Sue Hedden, 38

Sue Hedden, 38

Sue Hedden, a former high school Zulu teacher from Durban, co-founded Woza Moya in response to how the HIV/Aids pandemic affected families in KwaZulu-Natal’s Ufafa Valley.

Working as the director of the community-based organisation, Hedden leads with compassion. She started Woza Moya in 2000, alongside two partners, with the vision to create a safe and clean environment where community members are healthy and productive.

“People were dying in numbers, with no help or medication being available when we started this initiative — South Africa’s response to HIV/Aids has come a very long way since then. Our community health programme works in a close partnership with the department of health. We are seeing far fewer people struggling to access health services and support. We are also a designated medicine pick-up point and have a well-trained and supervised team of community caregivers,” says Hedden.

Also at the heart of the work Hedden and her team do is to create nurturing spaces for families. “We see young children in our early childhood development programme being better cared for by their guardians, and this includes improved nutrition, immunisation, reaching appropriate milestones, earlier interventions and referrals, if and when required, happier and better-adjusted socially, and growing and developing as they should,” she continues.

Having combined her love for teaching with her passion for community building, Hedden facilitates a collaborative environment where the women of Ixopo participate in their upliftment through Woza Moya. The organisation’s sustainable livelihoods programme has divided 160 vulnerable women into eight self-help groups of 20. They save R2 each per week, and are now banking on average R50 000 per group. Through this, many of the participating women have been able to open small businesses and productive food gardens.

“I love seeing people improving their own lives and becoming more healthy, productive, proud and empowered, and doing it all for themselves. This autonomy instils a sense of self-reliance that allows you to take off towards greater horizons and, ultimately, this is what we are all here to do — to reach our full potential,” says Hedden.

Starting a women’s empowerment initiative in a country with such major gender disparities comes with its own set of challenges, but Hedden and her partners were undeterred. “Myself, Jane Nxasane and Benedicta Memela founded Woza Moya in a deep rural traditional patriarchal community. And we did it with many odds stacked against us, but now people take us seriously and know that we are not pushovers,” she says.

Creating a community of allies allows for more impactful growth where people can thrive as a collective, which is what makes the work of Woza Moya so effective. “In standing together as a community, we are trying to effect change for the good of everyone. Keeping the most vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly, at the centre of our hearts. We have been able to have a stronger and more powerful voice and have protected our community members.”

In standing together as a community, we are trying to effect change for the good of everyone. By keeping the most vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly, at the centre of our hearts, we have been able to have a stronger and more powerful voice and have protected our community members.

Lebogang Mashigo, 35

Lebogang Mashigo, 35

When Lebogang Mashigo contracted polio at the age of eight, she became physically disabled and was no longer able to cope at a traditional school. Now, at 35, Lebogang is a supervisor at Light Electric Switch Company (Lesco), a position she never thought she would be able to hold. “Working here has helped me reach my full potential,” she says.

Before finding employment, Lebogang felt bored, stressed and despondent about her future. “There was nothing for me to do,” she says. As a disabled girl living in an unsafe area, Lebogang felt extra disadvantaged. Her parents often had to leave her at home alone to go to work, and they worried about leaving her vulnerable to robbery, rape or house fires.

At the recommendation of a local social worker, Lebogang’s mother enrolled her in a learnership programme. She was then one of 10 people chosen to get a job at Lesco, a Johannesburg-based electrical products manufacturer.

Lebogang started as a factory worker, assembling products. Lesco prioritises creating job opportunities for the traditionally unemployable. The company’s assembly process uses minimal equipment and little to no electricity, making it a safe workspace for labourers of all skill levels, including people with disabilities.

Lebogang’s infectious positivity and strong work ethic saw her rising to her current role of supervisor. Now she oversees workers, who are also people with disabilities, on the factory floor, teaching, offering guidance and boosting confidence levels.

Having experienced the boredom that comes with feeling stuck at home with nothing to do, Lebogang happily throws herself into her work. She prides herself on being a hard worker who likes to keep busy, describing her time off on weekends as “boring”.

“Waking up and coming to work makes me feel proud,” she says. “When I’m here, I’m in my zone.”

It is working with and inspiring others that excites Lebogang. She believes her experience at special schools gave her the skills to work well with people with disabilities. “I can see when people are struggling,” she says. She takes satisfaction in recognising factory workers’ strengths and being able to make changes when they face difficulties.

Growing up disabled, Lebogang says she and her parents often felt scared at the idea of them dying and her being left to fend for herself. Being given the chance to have a meaningful job has shown her that she is capable of being self-sufficient, and she hopes that other disabled people can have the same experience.

She also stresses the importance of parents with children with disabiliites to be proactive in finding opportunities for their children to flourish. “Staying at home all day as a disabled child makes you stressed and mentally drained,” she says. “Keep them busy, find learnership programmes — then they can shine.”

Lebogang hopes that more businesses will recognise people living with disabilities as potential employees. “You can’t judge people by their disability,” she says. “I want people to see that we can also do these jobs — we are capable.”

If you have disabled kids, don’t keep them at home; there are opportunities outside.

Michelle Lissoos, 54

Michelle Lissoos, 54

When faced with the unfolding education crisis in South Africa — with the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy report stating that a troubling 78% of grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning — it is easy to become dispirited. Making impressive strides to change this narrative and narrow the education gap is the multitalented Michelle Lissoos.

Lissoos is guided by a driving ambition — to empower South African youth to reach their full potential. Her own schooling produced a curious, intrepid learner, as well as a deep respect for the act of learning. She cites her late father as a mentor, someone who taught her to look deeply into things; to never stop being fascinated with the world and all its mysteries. “He taught me to never stop learning. His love for acquiring knowledge was contagious.”

In 2009 Lissoos founded iSchoolAfrica, a ground-breaking nationwide schools programme providing South African learners with state-of-the-art digital education software. The scale of the operation is impressive. Currently, more than 100 000 South African learners are learning via the iSchoolAfrica programme. Each participating school is fitted with a safe, mobile studio of 20 iPads that can be configured to suit classroom needs. Each iPad features a bespoke suite of apps to tantalise the young mind. A learner can switch from making music in GarageBand to editing a movie. Recognising skills that will benefit learners in the future, there is a hugely popular coding programme with an ever-growing intake. The iSchool Africa makes Apple’s #EveryoneCanCode curriculum — a full coding continuum from grade 1 to 12 — available to local schools.

Lissoos’s vision for education sees beyond the obvious.

Through community engagement, she has noticed a particular gap in the way young people are taught, one that privileges the able. She speaks passionately of the recently inaugurated iSchoolAfrica inclusion programme. This programme researches and implements technology solutions for children with disabilities such as autism, blindness, cerebral palsy, dyslexia and more.

With the world of business moving increasingly online, there is the need for digital competencies, so that learners can become what Lissoos calls “functional digital citizens”. Lissoos suggests that as technology changes, so must we learn to adapt and think ahead. Competency in the digital realm will be crucial base skills in a post-pandemic market. The future is upon us and Lissoos’s pioneering venture is one step ahead.

The further we venture into the sometimes not-quite-human world of the virtual, we must remember, now more than ever, our humanity. Technology needs to be used responsibly, warns Lissoos. “It’s not just about the technology,” she says. “It’s collaborations, partnerships and learning. It’s the engagement you see happen, the pure motivation. It’s teacher training. It’s about letting learners know that they deserve to dream big.”

It’s about letting learners know that they deserve to dream big.

Lusanda Ngesi, 41

Lusanda Ngesi, 41

The Paris Agreement has given South Africa a target to limit global warming to 1.5°C by reducing greenhouse emissions — but the slow pace of transition to renewable energy means the country is far behind this target.

Research into the rapidly expanding field of renewable energy is what keeps Lusanda Ngesi switched on. She holds the position of environmental management manager at Eskom.

Erratic weather patterns resulting from climate change can have devastating effects on farming. Fluctuating sea levels and increased temperatures are threatening human safety, food safety and water security. Climate change will affect all of us. A strategy against environmental degradation must come from both the public and private sectors, observes Ngesi. “I think each organisation has an important role to play and should have sustainable business strategies incorporated into their operations. What’s needed is commitment and sufficient willpower.”

A new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development suggests that Eskom can be a leader in South Africa’s transition to renewable energy. “The time is now,” urges Ngesi. “We need to act decisively.” Time is of the essence and Ngesi remains confident that Eskom’s aim to have net zero emissions at the organisation by 2050 is achievable.

The male-dominated territory of earth and environmental science has been a challenging environment to navigate from the get-go.
Ngesi says that as a woman in her field, she is open to scrutiny and subjected to double standards. Stereotypes about women are still prevalent. “We are seen as fragile. There’s an assumption that we don’t understand the more complex science.”

She traces her interest in South Africa’s primary energy provider to competing in a contest where she built the Eskom towers using straws. It was the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, and her group placed second. The Eskom Expo for Young Scientists has a rousing message for young South Africans interested in science.
“Our programme helps each boy and girl to become a responsible and independent young scientist, one who is a creative thinker, respectful of themselves and others, and appreciative of the differences among people.”

Years later, still fanatical about plants, biology and the environment, Ngesi is a horticulture student. When a lecturer mentioned an internship at Eskom, her interest was piqued. She applied and was accepted. “It changed everything. A girl from the village — it was a dream come true.” There was one hitch: “Eskom wasn’t employing horticulturists at that time.” Undeterred, she kept the image of Eskom “firmly in my mind. I didn’t stop dreaming about it.”

Ngesi is an example to never let go of a dream. “I am a strong believer that whatever you set your mind to is possible, because somehow the opportunity became available.”

She ignores the naysayers and people who question her ambitions. “My peers laughed at me every time I said I would work for Eskom because truly it was a far-fetched idea … Yet here I am,” she says.

I am a strong believer that whatever you set your mind to is possible.

Winners