Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: UN bosslady, seriously cool “Gogo” with doctorate in mobile tech

Despite recent criticism, South Africa does have some outstanding leaders. You just need to know where to look. Among them is former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who departed SA when the Zuma Administration took hold and is now a respected global figure. Her current role at the United Nations is driving the gender equality agenda, an area where progress is being made, but too slowly for her liking. Ahead of joining the UN, Phumzile studied mobile technology for her doctorate – and applied some of that knowledge to launch the ambitious “He For She” project which got an astonishing one billion people talking about the subject through social media. I caught up with her in Davos after she had starred in the session entitled “Ending Poverty Through Parity.” Inspiring. – AH

ALEC HOGG:  I’m with the former Deputy President of South Africa and now, driving the UN’s gender equality agenda around the world – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.  Phumzile, it’s interesting.  We’ve just finished a session here where your frustration at progress was quite apparent.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  Yes, because we have such great opportunity now.  One of the things that has happened in the last 15 years is that data collection has improved a lot, so we are able to measure progress.  We are also able to see gaps, and what it is that we could do to close those gaps.  I am hoping that as we adopt the new goals – the sustainable development goals – that we would actually, use that knowledge to improve our implementation.  In addition, the challenge of the Millennium Development Goals was the funding of the commitments that were made by Government – same thing about the Beijing Declaration.  Government created structures such as the concept of women’s ministries and gender commissions but in all countries, the women ministry is the ‘less funded’ and the less prestigious ministry.

Therefore, that does not assist those people who are deployed to work there, to do the kind of work that they’re supposed to do.  It’s a huge mandate with a very small budget.  Again, improving the investment on gender equality is important as well as ensuring that in every other area – we’re just not ticking the box.  In education, which is where there’s a bigger commitment and a passion by governments…  Where we are making mistakes in education is not from lack of trying.  In health as well, governments are making it much harder.  We’re failing people in the economy.

ALEC HOGG:  You also had good things about Rwanda, not just because President Paul Kagame was with you.  They’ve done excellent progress in representation.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  Leadership has been very, very important.  In many other countries where the leader embraces gender equality and ensures that they pay attention to how implementation of the past laws is being achieved, and where they engage with ministers.  I have been a minister.  When the President wants it done, you know it and you get it done.  You therefore do need this leadership and that is why it’s important when we talk about gender equality; not just to think about the women and the women’s movement as the only people with the responsibility.  It is a societal responsibility but more than anything else, leaders are there to protect citizens.  Leaders are there to protect their people’s human rights.  Women’s rights are human rights.

ALEC HOGG:  The economic implications also came into this in a big way.  If you can, perhaps pick up from what the Prime Minister of Norway (Erna Solberg) and Melinda Gates were saying about ‘when you put money into the hands of women’.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  Absolutely.  Just think about ending poverty in the world.  It can never happen without women.  When women have economic means, which in many cases is also assisted by education, the children in those women’s lives become better.  From generation to another, in the same family; you literally stop poverty.  You make sure that from generation to generation, it gets better and better.  One family at a time…one woman at a time we can actually, significantly decrease poverty, which is why it is important to make that distinction about investing in women in education, because it has that longevity that you actually see in society.

ALEC HOGG:  And that investment is made much easier by technology.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  It’s made much easier by technology now that we have access to technology because we are able to provide information to women for the informal education.  We are able to support women in giving them health-related education.  In addition, many of us are currently pushing for better access to education for women through technology to protect girls where sometimes, going to school is a violent proposition as well as in many countries where education is not free (affordability is an issue).  We need education to reduce child marriages and that is one of the biggest benefits of education because once we stop child marriages, we stop early pregnancies.  Et voila, we’ve created an army of empowered citizens (in women) who will definitely make their countries and their own lives better.

ALEC HOGG:  It was interesting about the point you made, that the culture in Rwanda is not different to the culture elsewhere in Africa.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  Yes, but people know that there are consequences for having impunity when it comes to harmful practices.  That is why I don’t buy it when people say ‘culture is invincible’.  Culture is not invincible.  Culture can be mediated.  You need to create the tone for culture to be challenged.

ALEC HOGG:  You’re driving the whole world in this agenda, but your own country came up in conversation here as an area where there is a problem with rape.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  Yes.  We need leadership in South Africa as well.  We need public education.  The tolerance for crimes against women in South Africa and in many other countries in the world continues to be a problem.  Once society reaches a point where there is violence against women – where there is a violation of rights – everybody rises up and we have zero tolerance.  Perpetrators get to know that you don’t get away with this easily.  Too many people in South Africa…too many perpetrators are getting away with violations and there is no consequence for being a violator.  The number of cases of men who abuse children and women, which are followed up successfully (up to a conviction) is very limited.  Consider the fact that even fewer women actually report.  It’s improving.

Women are much braver, but we all know that many women actually do not report when a crime has been committed against them.  Yes, we definitely need to get our act together much better in South Africa.  There are efforts.  Civil society is working hard.  Pockets of government are working hard, but there’s big room for us to improve.

ALEC HOGG:  Just to close off with, you’ve been hugely successful with your social media campaigns.  Where did that all come from?

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  I did a PhD on mobile technology.  For ‘Gogos’ (grandmothers) like me, we are not techno-savvy so when I left government, I was really concerned about future trends and things that we could do to make the world better.  I decided to go.  I went and I studied via mobile learning.  That’s where my eyes were opened.  By the time I went to work at UN Women, I was very clear that technology was going to be part of parcel of what I’m going to use to reach out to both men and women in the world – for them to be part of trying to solve the problems.

ALEC HOGG:  To get one billion people engaged…

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  It’s amazing.  It’s also because of Twitter.  We now have a special collaboration with Twitter because we were painted on the Twitter wall, twice.  This week, we are trending on Facebook – more than Twitter.

ALEC HOGG:  The whole campaign…how do people participate in it?

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  You go to and you sign up to become a ‘HeForShe’.  Then we know you.  You become part of the team of men.  Even if you are already a male activist, it’s good to be part of that because then you could be a role model to other men.  The important thing is that you choose something to do for example, Paul (Polman) at Unilever.  He says that he has 40 percent women.  In his commitment, part of what he’s looking at is how he could actually improve that.  As a result of joining HeForShe, you hold yourself to an even higher standard.  If you’re a man who has never thought about these things, this becomes your 101 – your start on fight patriarchy, renouncing the privileges of patriarchy, and actively trying to make sure that you could do some things right.

ALEC HOGG:  HeForShe.  I guess…Google it as well, on your phone.  You call yourself a techno-frenzy now.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA:  Yes.  I’m a ‘cool Gogo’ now.

ALEC HOGG:  Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, it’s been a pleasure.


Visited 257 times, 2 visit(s) today