Did Winnie Mandela Really Multiply? Being a Woman in Corporate South Africa

Being a woman in corporate South Africa in 2019.

I have been reflecting on my over a decade long career in communications in corporate South Africa this past woman’s month. I have found myself meditating on my role as a black woman operating in a predominately white corporate South Africa.  The death of Winnie Madikizela Mandela has been particularly triggering for me over the past year, because it has felt as though her death has been reduced to a spectacle coupled with catchy hashtags like #IamWinnieMandela #SheDidNotDie SheMultiplied that offer no tangible solution to my immediate struggles as a black woman. I find myself questioning whether she really did multiply and whether I am really a representation of such an awe-inspiring and equally intimidating force that is the Mother of the Nation. Do I have the resilience, fortitude or even the mental agility to continue the fight for a seat at the table like she did during and even after the apartheid era?

As I ponder on the space I occupy, I wonder if Woman’s Day is not simply a mechanism used to pacify the rights of South African women. Judging by the countless spa vouchers, sponsored women conferences and red roses spread in many workstations across the country one could conclude that Woman’s Day and Mother’s Day no longer share an unambiguous differentiation. The two have become one. It could be argued that Woman’s Day is PR fluff with no material consequences for the ones it represents that remain oppressed.

Has the fight for woman’s rights become commercialized? Are we more concerned with optics than the real work of pursuing real change in our spheres of influence?  Surely, there is more to feminist culture than wearing colourfully printed Ankara head wraps and white t-shirts with marketable slogans? What about diversity and inclusion in the workplace? Shouldn’t we as women present a united front in the face of all our enemies, instead we fight our battles in our private corners. I have come to the realization that we are afraid to speak up, circumventing any possibilities of real impactful change. Our voices are fragmented at times because we want to go at it alone negating the power we have in each other. Other times we lie to ourselves saying we are fighting the cause when in actuality we are promoting patriarchy.

Women want space where their voices can be heard. We want to be supported, respected and seen as equals to our male counterparts in and outside the boardroom. As I reflect on my contribution to corporate culture as a woman, I question my labour in this regard. Am I really an advocate for my peers? Do I speak up for the unrepresented, abused and overlooked?  Am I living the values demonstrated by Winnie Mandela? In those moments when I am in meetings mum has she multiplied through me? Am I asking the hard questions, or have I become too busy doing my job or offering lip service that I abandoned the ideals she fought so hard for?

How can we ever achieve the success of the women of 1956? How do we realize the efforts of activist and writer Professor Fatima Meer, apartheid activist Helen Suzman, the Mother of the Black Resistance Lilian Ngoyi and the 20 000 women who walked to Pretoria’s Union Buildings on 9 August? Women from different races and class status all standing for a common cause in one of history’s largest demonstrations.

Yes, more and more corporates are inviting us to take up a seat to the table. There is a surge of visibility of women in top corporate positions thanks to policy and practices that are intent on advancing our inclusion, however, there is a huge disparity between lived experience and what the policymakers are claiming as diversity.

Even so, how do we elevate the discussion beyond talk shops? How do we become influencers able to drive change within corporate? How do we move from observers to game-changers? How do we shift the discussion along from passive dialogues and luncheons to aggressive implementation strategies that are not just seen but heard?

Solidarity is the answer. Active citizenship is the first step, not based on race or empty slogans but rather a focus on building networks of proficient, adept women willing to be counted. Men should be our allies ready to go to the frontlines to fight the injustices we face on a daily basis. We need to provide supportive workspaces in order for us to grow and excel in our areas of expertise. It is also important that we become stewards ready to lay down our own interests and put the needs of others before our own. I believe this is how we can advance the interest of all women. Let’s start the dialogue. Speak out when we see poor behavior from those in power, interrogate own biased and be open to constructive criticism.  Business practices that do not advance women’s interest should be questioned and ultimately eradicated. We all have the power to make a change within our own scope of influence.

“We have a shared destiny, a shared responsibility to save the world from those who attempt to destroy it.” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Andiswa Mosetlhi is a communications manager with over 10 years’ experience in communications and public relations, she also has built, managed and promoted brands for multinational corporations and government-owned agencies.

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