On 9th August 1956, 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, in protest against amendments to pass laws instituted by the apartheid regime. The march was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.(2) Such women inspired a nation. Such women inspired a movement. However, inspirational women are not relics of the past. The African continent is filled with women who have done their part to improve the continent, make a difference and shape a better future. They are, to say the least, inspirational! With this in mind, focuse on a handful of women who have stood out in the areas of leadership, business and humanity.
Dlamini-Zuma is South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister and was recently made the new chair of the African Union (AU). Born in KwaZulu Natal on 27 January 1949 she is the eldest of eight children. Dlamini-Zuma has always enjoyed studying and has had a packed educational career. She completed high school in 1967 at the Amanzimtoti College; in 1971 she started her studies in Zoology and Botany at the University of Zululand, and later began her medical studies at the University of Natal. Beyond her educational life, in the 1970s, Dlamini-Zuma became an active member of the African National Congress (ANC); was a member of the South African Students Organisation; and was later elected as its deputy in 1976. During the same year Dlamini-Zuma fled into exile and subsequently completed her medical studies at the University of Bristol in 1978.(3)
Dlamini-Zuma has been an integral part of governance in South Africa since 1992 – starting off as a part of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations where she was a member of the Gender Advisory Committee. Thereafter, Dlamini-Zuma served as Minister of Health (term of office: 10 May 1994 – 14 June 1999), Minister of Foreign Affairs (term of office: 14 June 1999 – 10 May 2009), and as Minister of Home Affairs (term of office: 10 May 2009 to 2012).(4) Despite having a decorated history, one of Dlamini-Zuma’s highest achievements was her recent appointment as the AU commission chair. This has been hailed by the ANC Women’s League as “a victory for the women of the African continent who have long suffered under the oppression of colonialism, wars, poverty, and patriarchy.”(5)
However, when it comes to female leadership in Africa, Dlamini-Zuma is not alone. Of the 56 countries on the continent, only two have female heads of state. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi are powerful leaders on the continent and are inspirational in their own right.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 29 October 1938) is the current president of Liberia. Sirleaf is the first elected female head of state in Africa and started in office on 16 January 2006. She later received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and Tawakel Karman (Yemen). These women were recognised “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”(6) Sirleaf was one of the leaders who helped to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006 which aimed to improve security and promote peace in Liberia. As a mark of her leadership, Sirleaf apologised to Liberia for her early support of former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, referring to it as “misjudgement.”(7)
Africa’s other female head of state is Joyce Banda. Born on 12 April 1950, Banda is Malawi’s fourth and current president. She took office on 7 April 2012 after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika and effectively became the country’s first female president. She was previously Minister of Foreign Affairs (2006 to 2009) and Vice-President of Malawi (May 2009 to April 2012).(8) Before entering the world of politics, Banda was the founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation, founder of the National Association of Business Women (NABW), Young Women Leaders Network and the Hunger Project. In 2011, Banda was listed after Sirleaf and Dr Ngo Okonjo-Iweala (discussed below) as Forbes Africa Magazine third most powerful woman in Africa.(9)
However, one does not only find inspirational leaders in politics, the next two women have made inroads in leadership in other arenas. Reverend Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya (aged 61) is the first bishop elect of Swaziland and subsequently the first female Anglican Bishop in Africa. Wamukoya’s appointment in 2012 is significant for the region in that just 20 years ago, the Anglican Synod (of South Africa) approved the ordination of the first woman to priesthood.(10) Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, (born 13 June 1954) worked as both Finance Minister and Foreign Minister of Nigeria (the first woman to hold either position). Following her years (October 2007-July 2011) as one of the World Bank’s Managing Directors, Okonjo-Iweala was recently in the running to become the new president of the World Bank. However, the position was given to Jim Yong Kim from the United States of America.(11)
Okonjo-Iweala straddles the two worlds of both business and leadership. The next series of women are women who are inspirational in their business endeavours and who have proven to be not only leaders, but assets to their continent as well.
Inspirational business players
Bridgette Motsepe Radebe (born 26 February 1960) is a South African business woman known for being one of Africa’s first female mine owners. Although she had humble beginnings in the mining industry, she is now the Executive Chairperson of Mmaku Mining. Beyond that, Radebe is also the president of the South African Mining Development Association, is a member of the New Africa Mining Fund, and serves on the Sappi Board.(12) In May 2008, Radebe received an "International Businessperson of the Year Award" by the Global Foundation for Democracy; this award recognises businesspeople that have made a difference in a world of changing political and environmental landscapes. During her stint as the President of the Junior Mining Chamber, Radebe has alleviated poverty and restored the dignity of the native African people. Her model is now being used in various mining chambers across Africa.(13)
Another influential business woman is Isabel José dos Santos. Born in April 1973, she is an Angolan investor and is considered by Forbes to be worth at least US$ 170 million, making her one of the most powerful and richest women in Africa. Dos Santos is the eldest daughter of Angola's President José Eduardo dos Santos and Tatiana Kukanova and studied electrical engineering and business management in London. Dos Santos has interests in oil, diamonds and retail trading, and also owns shares in an Angolan cement company.(14)
Lastly, Yolanda Zoleka Cuba is one of South Africa’s leading business women serving as the Chief Executive Officer of Mvelaphanda Group Limited. She has a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) degree in statistics from the University of Cape Town as well as a BCom Honours in accounting. She started her career in Robertsons Foods in 1999 and later finished her articles at Fischer Hoffman. Beyond her work in the Mvelaphanda group she is also a Non-Executive Director of the ABSA group and a member of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Investment and Endowment Committee.(15)
However, one does not need to do business to be dynamic. Africa is filled with women who have taken strides to help alleviate the continent’s humanitarian crises. The next section touches on a fraction of such women.
Leymah Roberta Gbowee deals with conflicts of a different kind. Born on 1 February 1972 Gbowee is best known as a Liberian peace activist. She was responsible for leading a women’s peace movement, resisting Charles Taylor, which helped bring an end to Liberia’s 14-year Civil War. As mentioned previously, she was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with Sirleaf and Karman.(16) Currently, Gbowee is the Executive Director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Ghana. She was formerly a coordinator of the Women in Peace building Program/West African Network for Peace building (WIPNET/WANEP) and also served as the commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission.(17)
There are many ways to make a difference when it comes to humanitarian issues and Nawal El Saadawi (born 27 October 1931) has found creativity to be her niche. El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist and has written many books (‘Women and Sex’ published in 1972, ‘The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World’, and ‘Memoirs from a Woman’s Prison, to name a few) on the subject of women in Islam, particularly on the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in her society. She was also Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo and Editor of Medical Association Magazine. One of the reasons for her passion in both medical writing and her resistance to FGM is that she herself underwent the practice when she was young. She is also the founder and president of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights.(18)
It is not only the women on this list who need to be acknowledged. Within Africa, and indeed the world, there are many women doing good work on the ground who are often not recognised for their bravery, hard work and dedication
Celebrate women who are inspirational within their continent, country, communities, work places and homes