Reflections on South Africa’s first Freedom Day

“It was an experience filled with joy, hope and positivity, not only for me but for all who participated.”

May 2019 // Johannesburg

Birthdays are a milestone worth celebrating and South Africa’s Freedom Day, on 27 April, is certainly deserving of fanfare. The day holds deep national and personal significance for South Africans around the world, as it heralded in a new dawn for a country previously torn apart by racial and political divisions.

Twenty-five years ago South Africans from all walks of life united on 27 April, fused together by the shared dream of a prosperous and peaceful country for all. On this day we witnessed a miracle, one made possible by the choices and actions of each and every South African who decided on that day to put aside selfish desires and interests in favour of human dignity and individual freedom above all else. It was the collective power of the individual, united behind a common vision, that got us to that critical point but the road to 27 April 1994 was not without challenges and bloodshed. Many lost their lives and made deep personal sacrifices, and it is on their shoulders that the South Africa of today stands.

Of course, 27 April 1994 was only the beginning and since then the hard work required of every South African to build a nation where race, class and gender are no longer the identifying features has become self-evident. Over the past 25 years we have been constantly reminded and challenged to remember that vision which united us all a quarter of a century ago: a desire for a better future for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation.

I will never forget that auspicious day when I voted thousands of kilometres away from my home in Boston, United States. It was an experience filled with joy, hope and positivity, not only for me but for all who participated.

But I am deeply aware that it is not sufficient to live in the past. As South Africa’s young democracy enters early adulthood I believe it behoves us all to reflect on what 27 April means to us and how our daily actions contribute towards advancing the dream and ideals of the men and women who fought to bring down the apartheid regime.

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I and the other women who make us the WDB family are in a privileged position to serve as change agents in South Africa. We have chosen to champion the rights of women in our economy and our mission is to increase the participation of women in the economy; from women entrepreneurs in rural South Africa to the corporate boardrooms of Rosebank and Sandton. We have been on this journey since 1991 when the WDB Trust began advancing financial inclusion and economic empowerment for the most marginalised members of our society, rural African women, and when WDB Investment Holdings began actively advancing the interests of women in its investment-making process by advocating for more women in leadership positions.

 

WDB Investment Holdings consistently strives to provide opportunities for female-owned small- and medium-sized businesses in its own supply chain as well as in the supply chains of its investee companies by facilitating the funding, training and development of women entrepreneurs. But we know so much more needs to be done.

If I pause to consider the current position of women in our economy, it is clear that South Africa has made progress over the past 25 years. According to a research survey conducted by the Businesswoman’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) in 2017, women hold 19.1% of directorship positions in JSE-listed companies and 41.2% in state-owned companies (SOEs). The share of female executive managers of JSE-listed companies and SOEs is 29.5% and 28.5% respectively but the picture is less rosy when it comes to female CEOs, with listed companies and SOEs recording just 4.7% and 5% female CEOs respectively.

Despite clear empirical evidence which demonstrates the positive business and economic results of gender diversification, it puzzles me that we are not demanding accountability and change in this area. Certainly we’ve made progress since 1994 but the BWASA’s statistics show that the march towards gender equality in both management and leadership in business has been painfully slow. This, in my view, demands that we adopt a different mindset and approach if we are to meaningfully accelerate the economic empowerment of women in South Africa’s next 25 years.

Female workforce representation across organisations, 2017

This means not only addressing the importance of creating opportunities and a fair playing field for women in our economy, but also tackling the glaring gender pay parity issue. According to the Global Wage Report, produced by the International Labour Organisation for 2018/19, South Africa is among the top countries in the world with the highest gender pay gap. South African women on average earn 26% less per hour than men for the same job and for those employed on a permanent basis this gap stands at 22.7%.

If ever there was a statistic which highlighted how political freedom has failed to translate into economic freedom for the majority of women in South Africa this is it. Until we address these critical hurdles to the empowerment of women then the full resonance of Freedom Day’s promise will be missing for more than half of the country’s population.

It is time to confront two critical issues in South Africa: Women representation in leadership positions across the economy and the gender pay gap. This is not only an issue of justice and fairness, it’s about unleashing the talents of the 52% of our population who are currently extremely underrepresented in areas that matter most for the future of our country. Harnessing the power of the female workforce can and will jumpstart the growth of our economy, it has the power to tackle poverty and unemployment, and build that prosperous nation we visualised back in 1994.

Now is the time for bold and courageous leadership. We’ve made our mark at the polls, now it’s time to act in tandem, in accord and with the clear intention to turn a vision into a reality. It’s time for decisive action.

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