Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka – South Africa

Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka – South Africa

Date: July 2, 2012
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Globally, women constitute 8.4 percent of ministers of energy, mining and natural resources (IPU, 2000)

“In a position of power you must exercise power” – South Africa’s Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka

Mining; apartheid; migrant labour; women left to fend for families in the rural areas; fabulously rich white men; wretchedly poor black women; shady deals; smoky boardrooms; scandals; inequality. How many more key words would fit the mining and energy industry in South Africa?

Yet, as if to symbolically turn all this on its head, when you entered the offices of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka when she was  Minister of Mines and Energy  , the first thing that struck you is a large portrait of a woman miner, complete in white overalls and head gear. On closer examination you realise the miner is Mlambo-Ngcuka herself. “I always believe in (literally) getting into whatever I am doing,” she laughs. This approach clearly served her well, since she went on to become Deputy President, and the highest ranking woman in the history of South Africa.

One of the few ministers in South Africa who was consistently given an A-grade rating by the Mail and Guardian newspaper in its annual report card on cabinet ministers, Mlambo- Ngucka elicits high praises from all quarters.  “She is doing a sterling job,” says Eric Lucas, the caucus chair of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, and a member of the portfolio committee on minerals and energy. “We have had men like (former apartheid foreign minister) Pik Botha in this job, and they have not done what she has done. She is just simply a competent human being. What is more, she is encouraging women to go into mining, and she is employing women in her ministry. When I look at this department, there is a visible increase in the number of women and they are all capable.”

She made Lucas- who described himself as a gentleman of the old school- think about whether it is appropriate for women to go into mining. Admitting that he still has a problem with the idea of women in boxing, he says of women and mining, “I don’t see why not. There are more young women in science. Nothing should hold them back.”

Until a few years ago, it was illegal in South Africa for women to go down mine shafts. Now, a woman once described by a British newspaper as “the minister armed with charm” calls the shots. In between organising for her eleven year old daughter to accompany her on an official function (“It’s the only way I get to see her”) Mlambo-Ngcuka is going through a pile of legal documents on her desk relating to her bold new policy to change the face of mining- the “Broad Based Socio Economic Empowerment Charter for the South African Mining Industry” now commonly referred to as simply the mining charter.

Unlike many of the women in this study who had never planned on a career in politics and experienced some shock when greatness was thrust on them, Mlambo-Ngcuka, a teacher by profession, warmed to the idea. “I did not set out to have a career in politics, but when I got nominated to be an MP I said: that is not a bad thing to do. I always aimed to work in the public sector. But during the struggle we had never really thought about what that meant; the difference between a politician and a bureaucrat- it was all government. Before 1994 (when I worked for an NGO called TEAM in Cape Town that assisted women in squatter settlements) I was very vociferous about women making themselves available for higher office, whatever that office. The big difference is that I always imagined myself in education.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka’s first shock in politics came when the then President Nelson Mandela appointed her deputy minister of trade and industry. “I said: I don’t know anything about that! I asked him to give me a day to gather my thoughts. I believed that much as we should make ourselves available to govern, we should also not be wreckless and risk the reputation of the institution you are supposed to advance. I did not want to be over confident. I have never regarded myself as being capable of being a token. So I had to ask myself honestly: can I do this? I said, I don’t think I know enough about this, but what I do know is that I have the capacity to learn, and learn fast.”

She confesses: “Of all the jobs I have ever done in my life, trade and industry was the most painful. As a woman, the institution was so hard to relate to. The economy was so masculine and I was not an expert. I could not hold my own. I resorted to defining a niche for myself, to make connections with those we intended to empower. I thought the big boys had enough people worrying about their issues, so I literally blocked off and focused on women and trade. I made a choice and said this is a trade off: the choice between asserting shaky authority, and hand holding people I can relate to with my heart and my soul, and making some difference. There I could be an authority, and I did not have much competition! Not many officials in the (white, male dominated department) were interested in black women in small and medium scale enterprises. It’s moved quite a lot since then.”

Among legacies that Mlambo-Ngcuka left in the department is one of the strongest gender units in any of the government ministries, housed in the deputy minister’s office; a gender policy and the seeds of the South African Women Entrepreneurs Network, brought to fruition by her successor, Lindiwe Hendricks.

Mlambo- Ngcuka instituted the annual Technology for Women in Business (TWIB) award, “not because women are rocket scientists, but because they are innovative in using technologies in ways that make business sense. Women who struggle with appropriate technologies should have role models to look up to.”

The then deputy minister also ensured that women are included on trade delegations as a matter of course. “I said to (Minister of Trade and Industry) Alec (Erwin): no trip leaves this ministry without my signature. That means if I don’t see women, if I don’t see blacks, I’m sorry, the trip is off. Of course there is always the danger of tokenism. Sometimes, in some sectors, it became difficult because there simply are no women entrepreneurs in those areas, like in the auto sector. But it helped that officials knew that the whole trip they wanted to do could be off if they did not find a woman. We probably made mistakes, but I would say that forty percent of those we took became entrepreneurs. They were not just tourists.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka also became active in regional forums, hosting a workshop with the SADC Gender Unit on women and the SADC trade protocol then being negotiated. “In all the forums I looked for an opportunity, and I looked for allies. Even SADC men have now been conditioned not to argue against gender equality when they meet. At times I would say to myself, ‘I’m just bullying here, but so what’. At the global level, it was the same thing. I just took whatever opportunity arose with the attitude, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

In particular, “we took DTI to the rural areas, and it took women from the rural areas, with their intricate handiwork, and put them in New York without a middle person. For me, that is the single most fulfilling thing I did at DTI.” Her biggest regret in her first post, she says, is not having done enough about women’s access to credit and finance: “it is still a big problem.”

Being a deputy minister, she reflects, proved a good and safe learning ground for the economic sector – “Trade and industry served like an anchor for me.” When President Thabo Mbeki took over and appointed her a minister, “I was vain enough to expect that at least I would get a ministerial post.” Mining came as a challenge rather than a shock. The sector is regarded one of the toughest transformation challenges in South Africa. Mlambo-Ngcuka was clear that “I would have to use my position to alter the institutional make up of the industry.” She began by defining her key performance indicators; “human indicators that had to do with race, class and gender.”

Given the overwhelmingly male face of the industry, “I had to be realistic that I will not turn this into a woman-dominated industry overnight. I needed to convince women also; it’s been such a hostile history. Between being a minister at the pinnacle of an industry that requires skills that you don’t acquire overnight and needing to push the transformation agenda, I needed room to manoeuvre.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka saw as her “teeth” building equity requirements into licensing conditions. “One thing I have learned on this job is that when you make changes, you must have the necessary tools. The only way to do this was to have some form of sanction. I built the whole strategy around the licence.”

She proceeded to design a careful strategy for marketing the mining charter: “I was prepared to bring people along, because that is better than to bring people kicking and screaming. But they had to realise that there is no going back. Its good to win people over, but in a position of power you must exercise power.”

When she arrived in London to address the financial community there, one newspaper said she had arrived in the lion’s den. “I told the journalist: I am a lion myself- I was so convinced that our cause is just.” The headline the next day read: “The minister, armed with charm, disarms the gloomiest banker.”

The mining charter, which the minister navigated through stormy waters at home and abroad, begins by recognising the gender and race disparities in South Africa. It states that the government does not intend to nationalise mining (as happened in many newly independent African countries). It covers joint obligations of government and the industry towards human resource development.  Starting from zero, the charter sets a “baseline” target of ten percent women employed in mining over five years and 26 percent of ownership of mining industry assets by historically disadvantaged South Africans in ten years. Further provisions cover procurement and beneficiation. A score card that goes with the charter tracks progress of individual companies.

The minister is proud that the industry itself, that never in the past employed women, came up with the ten percent target- “for mining that is progress” – even if it some saw it as a pre-emptive strike “so as not to get into more trouble with the minister!”

As in DTI, Mlambo Ngcuka established women’s associations both in mining and energy. She would like them to be further along the road but says a start has been made. In energy, the size and cost of investment is so prohibitive that this is a barrier for women entrants and “it gave me sleepless nights.”

She recalls how, when she first addressed the energy branch, she told them: “The girl child is your first priority.” Asked by a predominantly white male audience to explain what she meant, she said: “If a girl child can’t play because she has to go and fetch wood; if she can’t study because there are no lights and she spends all her time fetching firewood to cook, then where is our future? You have to work for universal access, because that is your unique contribution to the liberation of the girl child. Their name is today. If you don’t do it fast enough, then you will have missed the boat. You will be measured in your performance on this basis.”

As in the case of mining, “I said to all the men (potential investors in the energy sector) that came to see me that ‘if you don’t bring women you are going to fundraise with, I’m not talking to you.’ You should see how everyone found women! But it’s not satisfactory. I am still going to go back to those who have not complied.”

She gives the example of a group of women who, with the help of the Women’s Development Bank, have gone into a joint venture with Caltex in the retail sector to run garages. The profits are ploughed back into the WDB: “between them they have 300 years of pumping oil, so they are no pushovers. It’s such a nice feeling to know that when I go to a Caltex petrol bowser, half a cent goes into micro-lending.”

In contrast, “Shell has not brought in women, so they are on a war path with me. The consortium they have does not have a convincing number of women. Sassol are tearing their hair out looking for women. I love it. Whoever thought those men from Sassol would be having sleepless nights looking for women business partners!” She still feels she needs more teeth in opening up the sector to women: “My thesis now is that I must have an instrument in my hand to make you do right by women, otherwise I will mess you up.”

Has she felt disadvantaged at any time as a woman in a man’s world? “I haven’t given them the opportunity to disadvantage me. I think that I know the powers I have, and I don’t hesitate to use them.” In her personal interactions Mlambo-Ngcuka balances being firm with creating a caring environment. “People bring their personal problems to me. I used to call my office indaba ze bantu (the peoples issues). When staff have problems, they prefer to come to me rather than go to the Director General; they see my office as a more homely environment. It’s quite amazing. You find the older white men coming to me with their problems, and then the DG said ‘minister why did you do this’ and I’m the one saying, ‘ag, shame man.’ “

This culture of openness didn’t change during her tenure as Dupty President, in which she was open and available to coleagues. This didn’t stop her, however, from taking tough stances, even against her supporters.

She concedes: “There was a bit of a contradiction in my own theoretical construct of how do you go into a man’s world and mainstream your role. I found that to use my authority optimally, I had to balance my authority with playing that caring role. There is a bit of a gender dynamic but I have not yet felt that I am being short changed.” She adds: “what is important is to lead by example, to be on top of my work, not to go to meetings unprepared, to affirm people so that they feel appreciated, not to be too high and mighty so that I give the impression that I know more than they do, because clearly in many cases they know more than I do. The key is knowing that I am not an expert and that I don’t need to be one. That does not mean I am stupid. I must be able to hold my own, so that it is clear I am no pushover. I may not know the details of how we will get there, but I know when we are not where we are supposed to be. I know enough without having to know everything.”

She gives the example of some companies including gardening in their procurement activities so as to pad up the proportion of black business, a trick quickly picked up by her eagle eye: “I am not the minister of gardening,” she tells them. “People should not be excluded from the heart of industry.”

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