Winnie Madikizela Mandela File picture: Herbert Matimba/Independent Media Archives

While thousands of people converged on Orlando Stadium on Wednesday to pay tribute to Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela, I was facilitating the Top Empowerment conference a few kilometres away. I knew where my heart was at that time, but my head needed to be somewhere else.

I consoled myself with the knowledge this was probably the best way to pay tribute to Mama Winnie, by talking about and interrogating something that was close to her heart.

Empowerment is about uplifting those who never had opportunities under apartheid and reducing inequality, poverty and unemployment in our special country. And South Africa is special. I don’t think many other nations have gone through so much pain and joy in one lifetime, sometimes at the same time.

As far as empowerment goes, it appears we are making progress, but the progress is not as fast as we expected. The one difference appears to be that more corporates are realising that empowerment is not something to fear, but something that should be embraced. At previous conferences on this topic, I always got a sense that most corporates attended because they were looking for ways in which to get away with doing as little as possible about black economic empowerment and employment equity, two of the pillars of empowerment.

Read: Madikizela-Mandela’s death exposes a divided SA

But, as always, the personal reflections were special and none more so than the story of Marcia Mayaba, a dealer principal in the male-dominated motor industry.

Her story was no different, but also very different, to the story of many young women on the Cape Flats, even though she is originally from Orlando East, literally a stone’s throw away from where the memorial for Mama Winnie took place.

Mayaba was raised by her mother and had to drop out of university in order to raise her two younger sisters when her mother died of breast cancer in 1995. My older sisters were taken out of school by my mother when they were considered old enough to work. This meant that I was able to get an education at their expense.

Mayaba was nervous before delivering her presentation and blamed it partly on the fact that she was getting married on April 27, Freedom Day.

But when the nerves settled, she spoke passionately about an industry she loves. She encouraged more women to look for opportunities in the industry.

“I have lost count of how many times I was the first woman, or the first black woman in my career of more than 20 years. There are too few women, especially black women, in the motor industry. We need to kill gender bias in the industry,” she said.

Gender bias in the industry came to the forefront last week when chartered accountant Adila Chowan won her case against Imperial Holdings who, the North Gauteng High Court found, had impaired her dignity. Imperial’s chief executive, Mark Lamberti, was accused of referring to her as an “employment equity” candidate when she was overlooked for the position of chief financial officer.

This is part of a challenge Mayaba has faced most of her working life. But she said she was not prepared to rise to the top on her own. She wanted to take other women with her. There is no better definition of empowerment. It is about taking people with you on the journey to success. It is about sharing the wealth in our society so that most people can be uplifted.

As I listened to her, I found myself thinking about another woman whose story has inspired me in the past week. Ruschda O’Shea, who has been in education for more than 23 years, has just been appointed as the principal of San Souci Girls High School, “the first principal of colour” to have been appointed to this position, according to media reports.

The news brought a smile to my face - apart from the “first person of colour” bit which still irks me 24 years into our democracy - because I worked very closely with O’Shea almost 10 years ago when she was acting principal of Crystal High School in Hanover Park, where I completed my schooling.

I remember asking her at the time what the school needed and she said they needed a big pot which they could use to give learners soup once a week and uniforms for the netball team.

It was a small request, but it meant so much to the children at the school.

O’Shea left Crystal after the principal, who had been suspended, was reinstated. She became the principal of Tafelsig High School, where she remained for eight years and was a huge success, raising their matric pass rate to above 90%.

Her commitment to education has been rewarded by her appointment to a significantly better-resourced school.

I am happy about the success of Mayaba and O’Shea - from very different but similar backgrounds - but can’t help wondering when “the first woman” or “the first black woman” will no longer be news.

We need to move to a point where the appointment of competent women will be the norm and not the exception. And when they are appointed, they must receive all the support they deserve.

This is what true empowerment is about and this should be how we pay tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus