In a continent that is well known for being patriarchal, with the male figurehead being understood as the authority figure, Africa has made major strides in the empowerment of women in the arena of politics. While the United States is still to place a woman in the Oval office, Africa boasts a list of powerful woman Presidents and Prime Ministers who are not just there to pay lip service and have proved their mettle in the work they have and are still doing. To mention a few; Luisa Dias Diogo,(Prime Minister of Mozambique 2004 – 2010). Maria do Carmo Trovoado Pires de Carlvalho Pires Silveira (Prime Minister of Sao Tome and Principe, 2005 – 2006), Agathe Uwilingiymana (Prime Minster of Rwanda 1993 – 1994). Joice Mujuru, (Vice President of Zimbabwe December 2004 – Present) and Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, (Deputy President of South Africa June 2005 – September 2008).  

    In this women’s edition we take a closer look at 3 women we feel are Africa’s Leading Ladies!

    Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

    The history, tapestry, diversity and strength of Africa’s women leaders speaks volumes about their resilience and will.

    In another giant step for African mankind, on the 15 July 2012, the African Union (AU) entered a significant chapter in its history, when after a hotly contested race that had previously ended in a deadlock; it elected its first female Chair. It was a significant moment for women the continent over when South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumaousted Gabon’s Jean Ping to become the first woman to head the male dominated pan African body.

    Born in KwaZulu-Natal in 1949, Dlamini-Zuma obtained a Bachelors Degree in Science from the University of Natal. She then served as the Minister of Health from 1994 to 1999 in President Nelson Mandela’s government before being appointed to the post of Minister of Home Affairs when President Thabo Mbeki took over office. Her post under the current administration of President Jacob Zuma, saw her serving as Minister of Home Affairs. Under her experienced eye the department underwent a major overhaul with many drastic changes made to improve services.  Processes were streamlined and procedures given a much-needed sense of order. An sms notification mechanism was introduced which would notify applicants on the status of their application and turnaround times for passports and Identity Documents were reduced.

    With such major success in her career, when it came to a worthy candidate for the post she was a sure winner. And despite the divisions that became apparent during the election, when Nkosazana was appointed to the top post, the continent and the World celebrated her triumph as a victory for Women’s Leadership.

    Dlamini-Zuma is not just a leading force on the continent; along with her political duties she is a mother raising four children she had when she was married to current President Jacob Zuma from whom she divorced in 1998.

    Her task as AU Chairman is unenviable as she takes on responsibility for a continent that is mired in controversy and conflict. From the war in Sudan, the unrests in Nigeria and the yet-to-be-resolved issues in Zimbabwe, she has her work cut out for her. But from the success we have seen in her previous posts, we are more than confident Dlamini-Zuma will make a change and breathe new life and purpose into an organisation that was on verge of redundancy.

    Ellen Johnson - Sirleaf

    There are currently two sitting female Presidents on the African continent, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and more recently Joyce Banda of Malawi. Their leadership journeys, much like Dlamini-Zuma’s, embody resilience, deep political insight and most significantly, a hands-on approach to leadership. 

    Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s memoir, “This Child Will Be Great” tells a remarkable story of her rise to the Presidency. Married young at age 17, she survived an abusive marriage and had to balance her liberation struggle with motherhood, raising four young sons. In 2006, at the age of 67, when most people are thinking about retirement, she was sworn in as the President of the Republic of Liberia.  

    The education, or lack thereof, of the African girl child is a thorny issue in Africa with many families opting to educate the male children instead of the female. In her inaugural speech in 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf concluded her address by saying. We shall encourage families to educate all children, particularly the girl child. We will also try to provide economic programmes that enable Liberian women - particularly our market women - to assume their proper place in our economic process”. With the realisation that a girl’s education can fundamentally transform a society she ensured that knowledge was a powerful weapon in her own empowerment. She received opportunities to study at Harvard and Madison Business College, and gained valuable experience in leading positions at Citibank.

    These studies led her to become the Assistant Minister of Finance in President William Tolbert’s Government (1971 – 1980) and then moved to Minister of Finance. In a bloody coup in April 1980, a 28-year-old General Samuel Kanyon Doe seized power setting Liberia on path of protracted civil war. General Samuel Doe executed Tolbert’s Cabinet, sparing only Johnson-Sirleaf and three others. Although she accepted a position in Doe’s government, she clashed with his party and also suffered imprisonment under his rule. Later, she formed an alliance with the notorious Charles Taylor when she believed that they shared common goals. It was an alliance that she regretted and in 2006 she publicly apologized for supporting him.

    Under her leadership, Liberia is still facing daunting tasks in trying to reconstruct the nation. Her biggest challenge is the impact that the war had on the Liberian people. High levels of illiteracy, unemployment, and unskilled youth and former soldiers remain on the fringes of society. In a presentation to Chatham house in London in 2011, Johnson-Sirleaf highlighted that in 1979 Liberia’s economy started to decline and that by 1989 it was in free fall. Between 1989 and 1995 the country’s GDP fell by 90 percent, one of the fastest drops in history. By 2005 Government revenue had fallen to less than $80 million a year.

    Her vision, her dream, is for Liberia to become a middle-income country by 2030. While her detractors are many, her ability to take bold decisions has already started to transform Liberia and set it on a growth path. The country’s economy recorded its eighth consecutive year of post-war growth in 2011, expanding by an estimated 6.9% in the year. For her efforts, she was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (with Leyman Gbowee and Tawakkful Karman) and her citation read, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society”. Although she is praised for her contribution towards women’s empowerment, history will remember her as a global game changer.

    Joyce Banda

    Banda shares an interesting parallel with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Married at 22, she gave birth to three children before she was encouraged to leave an abusive marriage. At the time Joyce had to step outside her social barriers and courageously leave her marriage in a society where divorce was frowned upon.

    Ellen and Joyce’s stories are truly a tribute to millions of women triumphing over violent relationships and the hope of rising to great success, despite testing circumstances. More recently her challenges include the fact that she almost didn’t become president. After her predecessor President Bingu wa Mutharika’s died of a heart attack, his allies tried to stop her appointment into the Presidential office even though she was deputy President. She made a call to the head of the army and with his support she was sworn into office on the 7 April 2012.

    But her socially conscious political awareness came way before she became President.  With women's rights being one of her key imperatives, in 1997 she launched the Joyce Banda Foundation using prize money from the “Africa Award for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger”, which she jointly won with Mr. Joaquin Chissano, former President of the Republic of Mozambique. This NGO was started with an aim to support children and orphans through education and also develop a microfinance network for thousands of women in rural areas.

    Banda states she learnt important lessons after spending 10 years in a physically and mentally abusive relationship, which helped to deepen her passion for empowering girls and women.

    Managing Malawi

    From her appointment Joyce Banda’s radical outlook has caught the worlds attention and placed her as a leader with the well-being of her country in mind. In her early days in the Presidential Office, Joyce took bold and unconventional decisions. She announced the sale or possible leasing of the Presidential Jet, as well as the 60 limousines for cabinet ministers and top government officials. It became a talking point in a continent where African leaders are renowned for their extravagance.

    Joyce’s decision has been highly praised because Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country’s economic growth rate slowed to 5.8 percent in 2011 from 6.7 percent in 2010. Economic growth was hurt by a cut in donor funding, shortages of foreign exchange and essential commodities such as fuel and a slowdown in manufacturing. Aggravating the situation was the expulsion, by Bingu wa Mutharika, of the British High Commissioner whose country, Britain, had been Malawi’s biggest bi-lateral aid donor. Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, was expelled after the leak of a cable in which he described Mutharika as "increasingly authoritarian and autocratic". Since becoming President, Banda has placed economic growth at the top of the agenda and also worked hard to regain the donor funds. The fruits of her labour were apparent when Britain’s international development committee urged the government to reinstate general budget support for Malawi.

    Over and above that she has pledged to lift the ban on homosexuality, where most African countries still see it as a crime and will keep the rights of women centre of her policies. It’s still early days for African’s second female President and she reflects that she has numerous challenges to tackle in leading Malawi into the future. Her early decisions in transforming the country are encouraging but the next few years will be critical and telling.  Asked about her new role Banda mused "You ask how I feel to be the first female president in southern Africa? It’s heavy for me. Heavy in the sense that I feel I'm carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women. If I fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But for me to succeed, they all must rally around."

    Though African states have battled complex problems since independence, through the decades there have been influential women who have risen above the challenges, often balancing tough social demands, and shown astute leadership skills.   And when you look at the calibre of women we have in power, African can be proud of the women it has raised and the progress it has made in empowering women.