Passionate about empowering women

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

By Neo Semono

It’s a chilly Tuesday morning and I am on my way to meet Trade and Industry Deputy Minister Elizabeth Thabethe, with a tinge of nervousness tugging at me.

Nervous because Thabethe is a woman of the world, as many would say. She wines and dines some of the most influential businessmen and women and hobnobs from one country to another; a life that many of us could only dream of.

But as soon as I meet her, I realise that there was no reason to be edgy because behind that savvy, glamorous persona, is a down to earth woman, who is easy to talk to.

Appointed as one of two deputy ministers in what is seen as a perplexing and complex portfolio in 2005, Thabethe oozes passion about her line of work. She doesn’t hide the fact that one of her many passions is to empower women for the betterment of society.

“Yes, it’s quite a heavy type of a department,” she says.

Among the strategic objectives of the dti is to facilitate the transformation of the economy to promote industrial development, investment, competitiveness and employment, as well as to facilitate broad-based economic participation through targeted interventions to achieve more inclusive growth.

“The dti then [is] one of the huge departments in government that is dealing with very critical issues related to the economy,” she says.

I ask how she would describe her time serving as the deputy minister in what could be termed as a difficult portfolio and she aptly replies that someone must do the job no matter how difficult it is.

“It’s quite hectic, I must say. It’s quite heavy but I believe that if you are deployed to a position, you must do your best. That is what I do, to the best of my capability,” she says.

First appointed to serve in 2005 to 2009 under the then dti Minister Mandisi Mpahlwa, Thabethe has served the dti twice, returning again to the department on 1 November 2010.

“We are here to serve [people]. To me, it’s a thankless job. It’s quite a challenging … position,” says Thabethe, who is frequently busy with work both locally and internationally.

Women Empowerment

Thabethe’s scope of work at the department deals with the second economy, and women empowerment, among others.

Taking delegations to trade fairs around the world forms part of the work the 53-year-old mother does. Trade fairs, which seek to promote the country as a trade and investment destination, are among the deputy minister’s highlights.

In April, South Africa scooped the Best Stand Award for a second year running at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, being crowned the best exhibitor in an international fair.

The department also won an award at a trade fair in India, which showcased the work of business people from across the nine provinces.

“We try and take lots of women, I’m biased to that,” she laughs.

Thabethe speaks passionately of the department’s mechanisms that are geared at the empowerment of women, particularly with the Techno-girl Entrepreneurship programme.

The programme is aimed at removing the stereotypes and biases that often prevent girl learners from taking science based subjects at school and pursuing careers in science and technology, with a focus on entrepreneurship. It is aimed at inspiring young girls to take advantage of study opportunities that exist in science and technology for the advancement of the South African economy.

The programme involves the selection of school girls that come together from 10 schools, selected by the provincial departments of education and economic development, to participate in a three-day camp where girls come up with viable business plans (responding to issues such as technology and innovation), which are presented to a panel of judges.  The overall winner gets to visit Parliament with the deputy minister.

The programme began as a one day initiative in 2006, kicking off with pupils from Soweto. The first three-day camp began in the North West.

Since the programme began, Deputy Minister Thabethe has made several pacts with some techno-girls. 

“I have made a pact with several girls that they will not get pregnant until they finish their tertiary education and they are working,” she says in a motherly tone.

Two voluminous files lay on a couch not too far from where we were sitting. She points out later that she has to go through the contents of those files for an upcoming meeting at the Union Buildings.

She laughs when she recalls how she had four school girls, who were work shadowing, her expressed shock at the workload she faces.  “I was asked: Do you have children? Do you have a family?” she says of their initial reaction to the workload, making it seem as if she does not have a life of her own.

“They didn’t understand that work starts before the sun is even up.”

Thabethe does not want to see young women being trapped in cycle of poverty.

“We don’t want them to be products of early pregnancy, receiving a grant from government. We want them to move out of that vicious cycle. We want to instill a business sense in them,” she says.

In June this year, the minister took a delegation to the 2013 Global Summit of Women held in Malaysia. Among those forming part of the delegation was this year’s techno-girl Boitumelo Oliphant of the Tetlanyo High School in the Northern Cape.

The summit is a meeting of hundreds of women leaders across various disciplines that come together and share their winning strategies to advance women’s economic opportunities. The summit was a rousing success, she says, adding that the summit was an eye-opener for women.

Key Decision Makers

Thabethe says that women have come a long way with women participating in government as key decision makers.

And what about women on the continent?

Thabethe says that for most African countries, women are not fully active in business.

“Experiences are different for most countries in Africa women are not fully active in business.”

Thabethe, who is also keen on a healthy lifestyle, is a firm believer that women can do a lot for the country. In her free time, she enjoys exercising and being with her family. 

"It’s rare to get a weekend at home with the kids. It’s very rare, if you have the weekend off it’s like once a year,” she says.

And with such dedication, the women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 against pass laws would be proud of such commitment displayed by Thabethe. -

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