Thokozile Nhlumayo is a young politician who is an advocate for social justice and gender equality. Although her political career began while studying at the University of Cape Town, her defining moment came when she was denied an opportunity to run for public office due to her age. “I realised that there is a gap in our democratic and political system in South Africa: young people are not considered leaders.”
In response, Nhlumayo started #nottooyoungtolead, an online company formed to hold the South African government accountable by allowing young people to hold strategic positions in public office. Her campaign gained momentum, spread across Africa and led to her current appointment as executive secretary to the International Youth Parliament (IYP), an institution which “advocates for the meaningful inclusion of young people in political, leadership and decision-making roles in Africa and globally”. “As women, we are still trying to find our space in this highly conservative political territory,” she says.
South Africa has seen a substantial number of women rising into political roles. However, Nhlumayo believes that the political structure in South Africa is still largely patriarchal and misogynist. Its political territory is protected by tradition and she has constantly had to prove herself, both as a young person and as a woman.
Nhlumayo’s advocacy extends further. On her appointment as executive secretary to the IYP, she introduced the LGBTQIA+ Political Leaders’ Programme, which focuses on empowering young political leaders who openly identify themselves as LGBTQIA+ to be represented in politics.
She says she would like to see the political system in South Africa become more inclusive: “We have seen progress — not much — but we have seen progress here in South Africa and in Namibia.”
Nhlumayo was selected for a Mandela Washington Fellowship, a US government programme founded by former president Barack Obama. The initiative recognises young, accomplished leaders who have made a positive impact in their communities and countries. Through this initiative, she recently received a certificate of recognition “for being a resilient leader in times of crisis”, signed by President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She says modestly: “I am really proud of that.”
She follows Obama’s approach of leadership from strength. Another leader who inspires her is Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda. By giving marginalised groups, including women, an opportunity to work with him in his government, Nhlumayo considers Kagame to be a true embodiment of inclusive and collaborative leadership.
“I have a passion for creating a collaborative, inclusive and democratic political system in Africa, free of prejudice and bigotry.”
Nhlumayo’s accomplishments have been recognised internationally, but it means more to her to be recognised in her own country. She would like to build a political leadership academy with the aim of producing the next presidents, ministers and decision-makers in South Africa and across the continent. Does she see herself running for the presidency one day? “Yes, definitely!” she says with a chuckle.
Focus on what you are good at; forget about your weaknesses.