Mangwashi Victoria (Riah) Phiyega was appointed South Africa's first woman police commissioner on Tuesday.

The first woman national police commissioner Riah Phiyega was only a “tiny” Grade 8 pupil when she travelled alone by train from Polokwane to Johannesburg in the 1970s.

In her first year at Leolo High School that year, Phiyega had been chosen to represent the student Christian movement in Durban.

Her mother, Rebecca Moloisi, a retired college lecturer, could not recall how old Phiyega was at the time.

However, she remembers vividly how nervous they were that she was travelling alone.

“We were so worried that our little girl, carrying a suitcase, had to go to Park station alone,” said Moloisi at her home this week in Seshego township, west of Polokwane.

“We heaved a sigh of relief after we learnt that she had met her teacher at Park station and they had proceeded to Durban together,” Moloisi remembered.

This week, President Jacob Zuma appointed Phiyega as the nation’s top cop, the first woman in the position.

Phiyega’s mother learnt about the appointment from the radio. “As a parent, I had a mixture of feelings, a little bit of shock and excitement,” she said.

Phiyega was “brave and a perfectionist”, said her elder sister, who asked not to be named.

“Riah has never worked for failure. She is not the type of person who would shy away from doing any task,” she said.

The family received Independent Newspapers warmly, but there were things they strictly wanted kept in the family. One was Phiyega’s age.

“You should never ask a lady’s age, that is her secret,” said her sister.

Asked when last she had spoken to her daughter, a proud Moloisi said: “I spoke to her this morning. As a mother, I said ‘I fully support you’.”

Suddenly, the phone rings. It is Phiyega calling her mother. The phone conversation is punctuated by infectious laughter. “Your people from the newspapers are following you now, they are here with me,” she said.

She laughs again, and then promises Phiyega that she would mind her words during the interview.

Phiyega took her cue from her family. With academic achievers for parents, she learnt the importance of education from an early age.

Her late father, GJ Moloisi, was a well-known principal and schools inspector.

Phiyega finished matric in 1975 and completed a BA in social work at the University of the North in 1981.

She went on to do an honours degree and to obtain postgraduate diplomas from several overseas universities.

Until recently, she has been chairwoman of the presidential state-owned entity review committee and has been a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

The Polokwane-born business executive previously held positions in the corporate sector, including Absa. Prior to that, she served on the boards of Transnet and the Port Management Association of Eastern and Southern Africa.

She was part of the 2010 Soccer World Cup bid committee and received a special award for her work. The University of Limpopo bestowed a community work leadership award on her.

Phiyega has several tertiary qualifications in business management and social work. She is also known for her community work involving women and children. – Additional reporting by Sapa