Newsmaker – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: A woman of the world
As head of UN Women, Mlambo-Ngcuka takes her fight for equality global.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is a woman of many faces: deputy president, daughter and mother.
Now she can also add global champion for the rights of women to her imposing CV after UN leader Ban Ki-moon announced her appointment as Executive Director of UN Women this week.
Almost exactly three years ago, the UN General Assembly created UN Women to accelerate the organisation’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women globally.
She knows her task, on behalf of 3.5 billion women and girls, comes with great responsibility.
But on Friday, the 57-year-old’s voice was laced with laughter when she spoke to City Press from a hotel in Glasgow, Scotland.
Her new schedule has been packed with interviews. Speaking telephonically, she sounded unrushed, punctuating sentences with “sisi” and pausing to think.
“Yes, I celebrated with my school friends. I was humbled, shocked, excited . . . you know, just all of those emotions,” she said.
She has just completed her PhD at Warwick University in England, and was in Scotland to reunite with classmates when the news broke.
She began her career as a schoolteacher in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1980s and soon fell in love with Bulelani Ngcuka, then a dapper young attorney.
He went on to become South Africa’s first national director of public prosecutions, and notably clashed with Jacob Zuma before the latter became president.
The couple’s initial wedding date in 1981 had to be postponed when Bulelani was arrested and detained for refusing to give evidence against a comrade. While he was imprisoned, she started working as the youth director at a women’s organisation in Geneva, Switzerland.
Unused to travel back then, she described Europe to her lover in a letter: “Geneva is cold and wet and I live next to a river. The central heating has not been turned on. So I wear a tracksuit when I go to sleep”.
The couple finally wed when Ngcuka was released in 1985.
She was elected to Parliament in 1994, served as deputy trade and industry minister from 1996 to 1999, and as minerals and energy minister from 1999 to 2005, where she left one of her most indelible marks on South African society.
But her career has not been without blemishes.
She was accused of funding a R4 million family trip to the United Arabian Emirates with tax money in what the media dubbed the “gravy-plane” incident – but was later cleared of wrongdoing.
In 2008, she founded the charitable Umlambo Foundation in Joburg.
Her new position at UN Women requires that she move to the organisation’s headquarters in New York, “but the job will see me travelling around the world a lot, particularly to Africa, which will be a priority.”
She added that her husband will join her there “on and off”, depending on his business interests.
It isn’t difficult to see that Mlambo-Ngcuka’s mother, Khosi Mlambo, greatly influenced her life.
Her voice swells with pride when she says: “My mother is still an activist at 84. She spent a lot of time working in the community while we were growing up.
“After retiring, she started a formidable home-based HIV care programme in Durban.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka’s voice has steered not only captains of industry, but has also shaped the thoughts of her three children, Olwethu (28), Luyolo (26) and Phumi (22) back home in Joburg.
Over the years, Mlambo-Ngcuka has tried to expose her children to many different viewpoints.
“I try to take them to as many places as I can, to expose them not just to my way of thinking. As a mother, you have to walk a thin line, not to be too heavy with your own opinions. I usually take them to events, and then afterwards we sit and discuss and reflect.”
They are also active churchgoers.
Back home at the Umlambo Foundation, staff are looking forward to marking the occasion when she returns to South Africa next week.
Her executive secretary, Khosi Shange, said: “It will be plain, with no extravagant catering. Phumzile just really isn’t fussy like that.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka, meanwhile, told City Press that, over the weekend, all she really wanted was some “fun” with her classmates in Glasgow.