Mokonyane: The woman, the Premier

Monday, August 26, 2013
Amukelani Chauke

Being a woman in a leadership position previously dominated by the so-called boys’ club often means you have to put in more effort than your male counterparts.

But when Nomvula Mokonyane became the first woman to be appointed as Gauteng Premier in 2009, she refused to give in to these stereotypes.

In an exclusive interview with SAnews at her Simmonds Street headquarters in central Johannesburg, Mokonyane says throughout her five-year tenure in office, she has had to flex her muscle more than was required because of her gender – which she says remains a challenge for many other women in a similar position.

“The issue of patriarchy and sexism has taken a different form. Sometimes it does not come raw where you are told you can’t do this because you are a woman.

“But you will find that there will be a lot of contestation on the ability and the potential you hold, and you have to do twice or three times more than what your male counterparts do,” she says.

Mokonyane also says that following her appointment, critics went as far as saying that she would not last in office, and that she would not complete her five-year term. At this point, Mokonyane pauses, gives a faint smile, and says she has always warded off those who targeted her because of her gender. 

“And I think for me, the strength that I have always had was that I have always refused to be seen as just a woman but at the same time, I resent anyone who cannot see that I am a woman.

“Yes I am a woman, but don’t only look at me as being a woman. I am also a full member of the organisation, a South African citizen with all the rights and with the potential of any other person and through that, I also expect maximum support and advice.”

Mokonyane rolls up her sleeves

And Mokonyane has character that makes it possible for her to get along with anyone – including journalists – and her charm offensive when first conceding that challenges exist before taking decisive action with a hands-on approach could be exactly how she earned the name “mama action”.

So much that she has also spoken about how she jokes around with other MECs whenever she attends strategic sessions.

At the memorial service of the late Economic Development MEC Nkosiphendule Kolisile, she revealed how she would tease him for wearing a white suit with a white shirt and tie, telling him he needed to wear a dark tie in the future. She says that she also advised him to stop taking fashion tips from Sports and Recreation MEC Lebogang Maile.

But even with her charisma, Mokonyane knew when she took over that she had a huge task on her hands – cleaning up the province’s administrative hiccups.

And when she took over, she found that the province’s books were a mess and she immediately went into the engine room of the Gauteng Legislature with a broom and spanner in hand – sweeping out all the administration’s service delivery bottlenecks and tightening loose bolts to emerge with a well-oiled, high performance machine.

“Firstly when we came into office, the province was almost in a position of bankruptcy. We had to sort out the finances of the province. We also had to look at how best to deal with issues of financial management and accountability and I can proudly say now the province has come out clean [as per Auditor-General’s audit report],” Mokonyane explains.

In the process, Mokonyane saved the administration billions of rands, promoted a work ethic and got nicknamed “mama action” for her troubles.

First up on her list was to do away with fruitless contracts that were a waste of taxpayers’ money with little returns as far as job creation was concerned, and she instructed all departments under her watch to review all their contractual obligations.

And in one case, in February 2010, the then MEC for Finance and Economic Development, Firoz Cachalia, put the brakes on a multi-million rand motorsport programme that had been signed off by his predecessors.

Cachalia reviewed the Gauteng Motorsport Company, which was established to manage the province’s R500-million investment in the A1 Grand Prix, the Superbike World Championships and the Superstars Series – in the process, saving the province about R8 billion in monies that the department would have injected over a number of years.

Mokonyane was also not shy to make changes when departments failed to deliver. In 2009, she reconfigured several departments and entities and introduced a new department – Infrastructure Development – which has been central to every department’s infrastructure needs.

She then merged the Local Government and Housing department into one portfolio, and did the same with Health and Social Development. 

In 2010, Mokonyane tackled challenges related to the late payment of suppliers, and immediately incorporated the then troubled Gauteng Shared Services Centre (GSSC) – then an independent department – into the Department of Finance after a review.

Perhaps her biggest and most effective decision while in the hot seat was when Mokonyane had lost patience with the departmental officials from Health and Social Development, amongst others, for always putting blame on its systems as an excuse for not being able to eradicate the backlog of unpaid suppliers.

Come 2012, she separated the Social Development portfolio from Health and merged it with Agriculture and Rural Development, and said at the time that Social Development and Agriculture were combined because they had a “strong synergy” since they were all involved in poverty alleviation and food security.

Mokonyane also moved the Gauteng Film Commission from the Economic Development Department to the Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation.

In December 2012, after the Gauteng Department of Health buckled under financial strain and struggled to pay suppliers on time, she placed the department under administration and appointed an administrator to implement a turn-around strategy.

Celebrating her five-year legacy

As the nation celebrates its women throughout the month of August, Mokonyane without doubt stands out among South Africans who have made their mark by putting a dent in the struggles that confront them in their day-to-day lives.

These include former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, whose star continues to shine after being elected as the executive director of United Nations Women, in New York. Her appointment came not long after former Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was celebrated for becoming the first woman to be elected as the chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission.

While it was an achievement to have a woman in her position in a province that is South Africa’s economic hub – with a population of 12 million residents and migrants – it was also a baptism of fire for Mokonyane.

She took the steering wheel at a time the world was on its head due to the global financial meltdown that led to several banks being nationalised – affecting trade and investment that led to emerging economies buckling under financial strain.

By 2009, the country’s economy had shed some 1 million jobs, which was followed by months and months of slow recovery.

Global economies shifted their focus towards programmes that focused on fighting poverty, inequalities and unemployment, especially amongst youth and women.

Mokonyane at the time embraced some of the government’s economic programmes, including the Expanded Public Works Programme, aimed at generating training and work opportunities to the poor.

By the fourth quarter of 2012, Stats SA reported that unemployment had gone down. Mokonyane says this could be attributed to her administration – notably the Gauteng Department of Economic Development – going on a drive to initiate public-private partnerships.

“[The reduction can also be attributed to] the interventions that looked at the reskilling of our workers so that you reduce the risk of retrenchments and job losses by re-skilling workers. Gauteng government made a big intervention through our work with the automotive sector in the province where through BMW, Ford and Nissan, we retrained workers that were going to be laid off and they were able to be kept in those job opportunities.”

Other interventions were anchored in infrastructure investment, and amongst some of the projects that Mokonyane oversaw was the implementation of several national projects in Gauteng, including the multi-billion Gautrain project that has since attracted thousands of motorists to the train express service that runs between Johannesburg and Pretoria via the OR Tambo International Airport.

Hosting the opening and the closing ceremonies of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup – an incident free world cup that exhibited football talent like Spanish international Andrés Iniesta, Argentine forward Lionel Messi and Dutch star midfielder Arjen Robben – was one spectacle and legacy that brought a smile to Mokonyane during the interview.

But the projects that brought an even wider smile and a sense of fulfilment to Mokonyane were the renaming of the R21 freeway after struggle stalwart and her mentor Albertina Sisulu and the launch of the Women’s Monument.

The monument – which incorporates a multi-purpose women's training centre – is located at the Lillian Ngoyi Square in Pretoria to serve as a memorial to the women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against apartheid's pass laws.

The march was led by four women: Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams De Bruyn.

“The role that South African women have played is the story that can be told over years [to come]. And the decision we took as the provincial government to say that we want to put the women’s monument as a heritage site for our country and our continent is something that I am really humbled that it happened during my term of office.”

The Albertina Sisulu freeway and roads is a network of provincial and municipal roads that connects Ekurhuleni to the West Rand.

“Someone was actually pointing out that I always get excited when I am talking about this. It just reflects the life of mama Albertina Sisulu. It is not a straight line. It is a freeway into the Johannesburg CBD, it disappears into Market Street, it appears somewhere in Main Reef Road. This is the semblance of the struggle and the road to freedom that people like mama Albertina Sisulu have travelled. I think it is another story that we must tell.

“That is the story of the woman’s struggle, a woman like mama Albertina Sisulu, who we have embraced as our icon, my personal mentor, my second mother after my biological mother…”

The Premier says the way the road is broken in between – when it disappears and appears – symbolises the ups and downs of the struggle for women and how they had to look after their families and juggle that with being activists while also looking after their own families.

Passionate about empowering women

On top of her well documented fight against substance abuse by the youth, Mokonyane made it her personal mission to support girl learners in rural areas who often relied on “sugar daddies” to help them cope with their financial needs.

“In fact we have also provided programmes and support to girl learners that contributed to the reduction of absenteeism.

“We look after girl learners who come from child-headed families. We give them dignity packs (that come with toothpaste and sanitary towels, amongst others) and it is something we have exceptionally done as a province and it is something that has reduced the high level of infections in terms of many partners, and even girl learners exposing themselves to what is called sugar daddies. We had to look at social factors that made our girl learners exposed.”

As the interview draws to a close, Mokonyane says even though so much has been achieved during her term, she always embraces criticism to help her improve, and adds that it was during those testing times that she emerged as an even stronger woman.

“Sometimes, society can be very hard on women and it does hurt at some point.

“I have been hurt over the past five years during my term of office. I have been hurt as an individual but I have also grown into a better person because the experience of both the good and the bad has created a better person who can tell a story.”

She says in the twenty years that she has spent as a member of the legislature, as a member of the executive council, being an MEC and in the last five years as the premier, she has been really humbled by the opportunities that she has been given.

“… and I think my experience could actually make a meaningful contribution going forward as the country – starting as a member of the legislature, a chairperson for the portfolio committee for one and a half years, moving on to being the MEC for agriculture, going into safety, then housing, and now as a Premier. I think there is no better school or university than that kind of experience that I would forever like to use for the development of women, children but also broadly the society.

“And I would like to say that if I was to be asked on the things that must be done, there must continually be support for women because of the responsibilities that we have beyond our office mandate. Secondly, I also believe that women must also be assertive and surround themselves with capable men and women. Thirdly, you must never lose touch with the connections that you have had and those that have always been there to support you and never give away on your principle.”


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