In honour of women’s month and the 20 000 women that marched to the Union Buildings on the 9th of August 1956 to protest the Pass Laws, the WISA Young Water Professionals hosted a webinar series honouring those incredible women working in South Africa’s water sector in 2020.
The first of three webinars, held on the 10th of August 2020, was titled “She leads: with her Power, Voice and Pride” which included a dialogue with seven phenomenal women from diverse backgrounds with amazing stories sharing their experiences navigating their chosen fields and what the current CoViD-19 pandemic meant for their personal and professional lives.
Monica Malunga (Acting Executive of Operations at Umgeni Water) starts the webinar with an all too familiar story of how she, like many others, joined the water sector by chance in her youth; “It found me, I didn’t find it” she confesses with a laugh.
However, after many years of hard work, she had managed to work her way into the upper echelons of leadership in the sector that “found her” and in answering the question of how she came to be an executive at Umgeni Water, Ms. Malunga says that when she was given an opportunity to lead, she took that opportunity while at the same time making sure that through her hard work and excellent leadership she would not just be a token women in leadership, but would use her voice to make sure that women in the sector would have similar opportunities.
Ms. Malunga advises young women that while South African society is still battling to accept women in boardrooms and there still remains this perception that women who raise their voice are “just being emotional”, it does not mean you have to start acting like a man to be accepted in positions of power – “Stay true to yourself and know that as a woman you have all the capabilities that men have and you must demand that space in the boardroom and not be afraid to speak and stand up for yourself”.
The need for mentorship among women is a consistent talking point among the panelists with Dr. Tebogo Mashifana (Senior Lecturer, UJ) challenging those women that are the first to enter the male dominated boardrooms to ask themselves what they are doing to empower other women to achieve the same and taking the time to mentor these young women who are following in their footsteps while Ms. Matome Selelo (Microbiologist, ERWAT) advises that while she agrees that mentorship is critical, young professionals must equally “come with a teachable attitude” and a willingness to learn so as best to harness this mentorship.
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women” – Maya Angelou
“Whenever there was a new student, it was always a man” recalls Ms. Lungi Zuma (Senior Chemical Engineer, eThekwini Municipality) of her days studying Chemical Engineering at UKZN back in 2012 as she speaks to the issue of ensuring that more women enter the water sector in technical positions.
Although she concedes that work in sanitation is definitely a dirty job, she is encouraged to see more women joining her field in recent years. “We need to keep women in technical positions and ensure that when we see a photo of the executives of a water service provider that the women aren’t always only the heads of the Human Resource departments”, she says, lamenting how many of the female engineers she started working with at SASOL are no longer in the same technical positions.
While the conversation thus far is dominated by critical talking points such as women in leadership, the need for mentorship, and the need for women in technical positions in the water sector, we are also reminded, by Ms Thuli Mkhize (Works Administrator, Umgeni Water), about that struggle that women with disabilities face in the workplace, especially in terms of accommodating physical disabilities at water and wastewater treatment plants across the country. Although she says that she is seeing a change as many new plants that are being constructed do attempt to accommodate physical disabilities and she believes that this is indicate of barriers that are slowly, but surely, fading away due to a multitude of diverse voices that are finally being listened to. She reassures us that while change might not happen over-night, but that it will eventually happen somewhere along the line.
Furthermore, it is a proudly queer young water professional, Ms. Thandolwethu Jele (MSc candidate Ecological Science, UKZN), that highlights the need to create workspaces that promote diversity and safe spaces, both for women and for non-binary persons, by holding individuals accountable, designating gender neutral bathrooms, and encouraging the use of different pronouns for different individuals.
But let us not forget the backdrop against which this webinar is held: the CoViD-19 pandemic. According to Dr. Rebecca Sindall (Operations Manager – Sanitation Prototype Testing Platform, UKZN), the CoViD-19 pandemic, especially in South Africa, has highlighted the inequality in water provision and sanitation among those who are able to stay safely at home and wash their hands with hot running water from a tap and those, mainly women, that still have to walk kilometers to the nearest water collection point for their most basic functions such as cooking, washing and hygiene. And while she commends the government response to provide water during the crisis to the areas that lack easy access to water, she says that these measures are only short-term solutions and that it is imperative that we find financially sustainable and alternative long-term solutions for universal access to water in South Africa.
In the words of John Lewis “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble” she quotes, adding that it is up to us to decide what the normal is going to be that we return to after the pandemic.
In conclusion, it is Dr. Tebogo Mashifana that passionately summed up the spirit of the webinar when she states that:
“As a woman, I cannot postpone doing some things because I am a woman. I cannot postpone being a mother because I want to be a student. I cannot postpone being a business woman because I want to be a wife. It is a matter of women taking up space and owning that space”.
Each of the panelists were asked what advice they would give to their younger selfs and here are some of the responses:
“The journey is not always linear, but you will get there eventually through twists and turns” – Ms. Lungi Zuma
“Remember that behind every successful woman there is a tribe of women that have your back and never believe you are alone” – Ms. Matome Selolo
“Believe in your dreams and do not allow anything to derail you” – Dr. Tebogo Mashifana
“Seek opportunities and always be open to learning, even if it is outside of your academic scope” – Ms. Thandolwethu Jele.
The Young Water Professionals like to thank the members of the YWP-GP and YWP-KZN chapters for organising this necessary and incredibly successful webinar.
Please follow the link below if you would like to listen to the full webinar: