Celebrating the legacy of South Africa's female icons

Dondo Mogajane, CEO of the Moti Group.

Dondo Mogajane, CEO of the Moti Group.

Published Mar 8, 2024


By Dondo Mogajane, CEO of the Moti Group

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I look around with gratitude at South African women in various positions of authority who have brought their grace, energy and intelligence to the service of this country.

So, as we honour the women who enrich South Africa today, we should always be mindful of those who took pioneering steps, back when it took enormous courage and strength for a woman to raise her voice against the mindset of those times.

I think of women such as Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Suzman. Each, from her side of the divide, spoke and acted against injustice and inequality. It’s thanks to fearless crusaders such as these, and others like them, that women of all ethnic backgrounds can compete equally in a modern South Africa.

Unfortunately, many of those female foot soldiers for freedom have gone largely unrecognised, as they worked at a grassroots level, but each of their efforts contributed to that great call for justice and freedom. It was their fortitude and relentlessness that have empowered women in this country to believe in themselves, and know that they have every right to pursue their ambitions.

Notable in all spheres of endeavour

From agriculture to science, mining to banking, activism to academia, South African women are leaving their mark, so it’s difficult to single out just a few individuals. But, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is important to reflect on the contributions of our many female trailblazers. The following leaders are some examples of the treasures we could lose in an environment that isn’t gender-inclusive.

One influential woman who’s always on the public radar is the courageous and outspoken Professor Thuli Madonsela, who was our Public Protector between 2009 and 2016. As an individual who gave input into drafting our Constitution, she currently holds the Law Trust Chair, Social Justice Research at Stellenbosch University. This dovetails with her tireless championing of social justice, rule of law, and good governance.

I’d also like to highlight the accomplishments of the formidable Dineo Lioma in the field of biotechnology. She’s the co-founder of three biotechnology companies: Deep Medical Therapeutics, which employs artificial intelligence in optimising healthcare in Africa; CapeBio Technologies, which works on healthcare solutions; and Incitech, which creates rapid diagnostics kits, including those for at-home HIV testing.

Arlene Mulder was the winner of the Forbes Woman Africa Technology and Innovation Award in 2019, and has also accepted the role of Global Ambassador for the startup competition She Loves Tech, a business accelerator for women. Her stated mission is to democratise education and advance Africa’s digital problem-solving capabilities.

Given my background in National Treasury, it would be remiss of me to overlook the first woman to have run Africa’s biggest stock exchange, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), Nicky Newton-King. She has a track record as an outspoken advocate for the promotion of women’s roles in business and society, and I would confidently assume that her motto would be shared by all the women I have mentioned here: “Study hard, work hard and put up your hand.”

Superstars of the arts

On the cultural scene, we’ve had Charlize Theron step up to the podium at the Oscars, and Tyla at the Grammys, but we should never forget the giants who secured our country’s foothold on the international cultural landscape. I speak, for example, of Miriam Makeba, that tireless human rights campaigner and songbird, who earned herself the affectionate labels of ‘Mama Africa’ and ‘Empress of African Song’.

Dolly Rathebe, another great icon of our cultural past, was one of the key voices of the South African jazz movement of the 19040s and ‘50s. She went on to great success in the UK with the musical ‘King Kong’ and, like many black South African artists, went into exile. She returned to her homeland ahead of most of her peers, however, and, in her later years, immersed herself passionately in community work and development.

Finally, two women have played a critical role in my own life. My late mother was what would now be termed the GOAT (greatest of all time), as she played a major role in shaping my outlook on life. Second, the current Mrs Mogajane, my beautiful wife, who continues to be a pillar of strength in everything I do.

Ultimately, our female pioneers in all spheres of endeavour have left mighty footprints indeed. I look forward to seeing many more generations of empowered and educated South African women pick up the baton, and continue to give South Africa much to be proud of in the years to come.