The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Future Africa institute and campus recently hosted an online panel discussion that featured a group of prominent women who are well known throughout Africa for their achievements in fields such as medicine, chemistry, academia, and development economics.

The event, titled ‘Women’s Role in the Transformation of Africa’, sought to provide answers to questions that ranged from why it is important to have leadership development programs that are targeted at women to how sexual and reproductive health affects the role of women in the transformation of Africa. In the opening address, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe suggested that the subordination and marginalization of women is no longer sustainable.

“Without addressing gender equity, equality and empowerment, Africa’s complex, wicked, complicated, and intersectional issues will not be resolved,” he explained. “In other words, we will not be able to achieve genuine democracy and inclusive, sustainable development that will make our continent prosper.”

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women and a former South African Deputy President, delivered the keynote address and urged leaders in all sectors, particularly those who serve in the public sector, to lead in a responsible manner because when they don’t, women tend to bear the brunt of their inconsiderate conduct.

“We are asking for the fiscal stimulus that is being provided by the government to please pay attention, in a granular way, to how this will also benefit women,” she said. “We urge activists and business organizations to make sure these fiscal stimuli respond to the needs of women. We ask for an end to corruption because women tend to lose a lot when public resources are being siphoned and stolen.”

Professor Cheikh Mbow, Director of UP’s Future Africa Institute and campus, explained the rationale that informed the decision for Future Africa to host an event of this nature.  He felt that the event did, in some way, help the institute fulfill its mandate.

“Future Africa was created to promote knowledge that is generated and geared towards the transformation of the African continent,” Prof Mbow explained. “The best way to galvanize scientists to co-create that knowledge is through transdisciplinary and intra-African collaboration to achieve our aspirations for development and to conceptualize the requisite processes that will facilitate the implementation of action research. This discussion is one of the opportunities offered by Future Africa to reach out to a wide pan-African audience to harness an inclusive space for solution-oriented science.”

Charting a new way that prioritizes inclusivity

The panel discussion featured women with varying expertise, but who have one thing in common: an unwavering commitment to the advocacy of women’s rights and gender equity and equality. Moderated by conversation strategist, global moderator, and UP alumna Nozipho Tshabalala, the panelists included Dr. Tamala Tonga-Kambikambi, Professor Leslie Petrik, Dr. Joannie Marlene Bewa, and Rumbidzai Chisenga.  

“Leaders are central to driving change,” said Chisenga, Director of Leadership Programmes at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Centre for Women and Development, in response to a question as to why she focuses on issues pertaining to leadership and why Africa needs women to be in leadership for economic development and inclusive growth to be achieved. “They are visionaries; they help us to reimagine society; they are strategic mobilizers; and they help us to gather the resources and momentum to get moving. And perhaps, more importantly, leaders are the custodians of entrenched norms. If we are thinking about an inclusive society then we need to think about harnessing half of our society, who are women, and getting them to share their ability to innovate, reimagine and mobilize individuals, and be the custodians of a new society.”

Prof Petrik, who serves in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), encouraged women to aspire to be leaders in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), as this would contribute to economic growth.  

“Women need to also understand that they have got a great deal of proactive work to do – to actually insist in their spheres, as far as possible, on the sharing of family responsibilities; to [push back] against patriarchal attitudes; speak up when someone puts you down; make a fuss when there is a glass ceiling, and call people out when they put you into a stereotypical role or treat you in a stereotypical way.” 

Prof Petrik added that women also need to be demanding when it comes to remuneration and insists that they are treated fairly.

Her sentiment struck a chord with Dr. Tonga-Kambikambi, who is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of the University of Zambia.

“We should speak out! Just because I am a female DVC doesn’t mean I should be paid less than what males used to get before me,” she said.