05 Aug Interview with Dr Nthabiseng Moleko
Dr Nthabiseng Moleko
Commissioner: Commission for Gender Equality
Senior lecturer in Managerial Economics and Statistics at Stellenbosch University Business School
Nthabiseng is the Deputy Chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), and chairs the Research and Education Committee. The CGE was established in terms of Section 187 of the Constitution in order to promote, develop, attain, and protect gender equality. Apart from her work at the CGE, she is a faculty member at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, where she lectures part-time in economics and statistics and is a development economist. Nthabiseng holds a PhD in development finance from Stellenbosch University. As the former CEO of the Joe Gqabi Economic Development Agency and project manager and researcher at the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council, she has extensive experience in economic development.
Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?
I’m a researcher who became CEO of a development agency in the Eastern Cape, but my underpinning educational foundation was economics. I grew up in Umtata and relocated to Cape Town, where I did a business science degree in economics at UCT, and then a Master’s and doctorate in development finance at Stellenbosch Business School. I saw a gap in the knowledge on the use of financial markets and financial assets for national development, and how to use these for national growth, development, and alleviating poverty. My career path changed at the point when I transitioned from the private sector — I worked in an asset management company — to public agencies, to which I felt I was more suited.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?
The first big challenge was undertaking a PhD — leaving my full-time job to pursue full-time education. That required of me to have a lot of faith. I understood it had a cost, but it was well worth the price. The biggest challenge at that time was focusing on the goal and paying the price of equipping myself, improving my competencies, developing my research capabilities through the research process, and also contributing to the body of knowledge.
Another big challenge that one faces in this space is the ability to make a niche for yourself in the midst of pursuing your vision amidst the noise of what everyone else is doing. I was fortunate in that I was able to pursue my dream. There was no one else that I could really use as a benchmark, who could say they had researched development finance or financial markets policy with the intent of translating it into economic policy to further economic development using pension funds, so I had to see myself outside of other people and just be myself. That was the challenge — believing in the dream that you carry, rather than trying to be someone else.
The third would be the financial constraint of changing jobs from the private sector to an academic setting. You need to understand that the payoff is not money, it’s fulfilment and contentment in doing what you find beneficial to your purpose. Another challenge I want to mention is age discrimination, where people think that, because of your age, you cannot handle certain roles. I was young; at 30, I was appointed as a CEO, I was young as a Commissioner, and I was young for my PhD. I’m young now! I don’t believe that you have to wait until you’re much older. People can do a lot of good in their youth, while they have energy. We need energy, passion, and innovation to rebuild South Africa and our continent.
The other challenge I had to face was in 2011, when I left the urban area and moved to a very quiet, rural area. That was difficult for me, even though I was going upwards with regard to my purpose and destiny. It seemed like I was going backwards in that rural, very small and quaint area, even though I knew that this was the right move because I wanted to make an impact. Making the move to a rural area at such a young age was tough, but I knew that, if I wanted to have an impact, I had to go where there was a problem and a need. I did it because I wanted to pursue my purpose.
Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?
Firstly, what you want isn’t always packaged as you want or expect it. For example, I’ve always wanted to influence Africans at a high level. I didn’t think that influencing them would come in the form of teaching at a business school, but when I think about it, it’s one of the best ways to influence the minds of young thinkers and people who are going to hold positions of power later.
Never push away an opportunity because it’s not in the form that you expect. Look at the intent and what is in the package, rather than how it’s boxed or how it’s shaped. I would also say to my younger self, ‘You’re going to make it and it’s going to work out, even though it’s not clear what the end will look like. And then keep running. Don’t give up.’
It is important to have principles and values and adhere to them in coming to decisions and as you rise up the ladder of your career. Whether it’s in the corporate space or public sector or wherever, I would tell myself to always stand by, defend, and not compromise principles and values for anyone or anything. Rather walk away from the situation.
Finally, we shouldn’t see ourselves always living in urban areas. It is possible to live out your dreams, do good, and prosper in smaller towns, in rural areas, in places where it’s needed. In South Africa, we need to find solutions for people living in rural areas and operating in the informal economy. There are so many opportunities all over the country to grow, develop yourself, and make a contribution. We need to make sure that we open ourselves up to that.
What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?
One of the things I am most proud of is leaving asset management. I wasn’t fulfilled. That was the turning point in my life. I’m so proud that I left what I knew was not for me. I knew I had to pursue a bigger dream, even though it took me maybe another ten years to get to it. I’m proud of that moment. It changed everything for me.
I’m also very proud of the fact that I have worked with many young people, a group of artists. We did career guidance in both rural and urban areas, mainly in Durban and the Eastern Cape, where we shared our own personal journeys, and we encouraged youths, mainly from rural areas, to learn scarce skills or develop in areas they wouldn’t ordinarily know of, or not know how to get into STEM and other such spaces.
Part of influencing other individuals lies in linking them to information that could change their lives for the better.
Another thing I’m proud of is getting my PhD. It was the hardest process yet in my personal life. It required perseverance I didn’t know existed. It strengthened my ability to endure criticism. In the end, my thesis was very well received by my examiners, and they commented that this was one of the best they had received to date. My supervisor actually said he had never seen such comments from examiners. I was very grateful. I am particularly proud of the second leg of the PhD, because the content is about pension funds and national development. It’s a real issue in the country right now, a national discourse, and I’m able to offer thought leadership on the issue. I’m very proud that it’s a relevant thesis. That’s how education should be, that we inform on issues in the country and how to improve policy-making and advise on reforms.
What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?
My first wish is that every woman would fulfil her economic destiny. Women are hardest hit by inequality, poverty, and unemployment. If we can improve those things, women’s livelihoods would be improved.
The second wish is that women enter into areas of critical and scarce skills — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If we are to industrialise, the opportunities for ownership, enterprise development, and employment in these areas would be massive. The perception that these jobs are for men needs to change. I wish for more young women, especially black women, to enter into engineering, mathematics, and the sciences at high-school level. There are myriad opportunities for black women to become artisans.
Thirdly, we need to see greater representativity of women at the highest levels of decision-making, women who fill the space in both the public and private sector, at executive and senior management levels, as well as at board level.
We need to address structural constraints such as men getting higher wages simply because they are men — the gender pay gap. My colleague Prof Bosch has written extensively on this.
Finally, I would hope that we begin to quell gender-based violence through prevention and corrective action. It would be good if we were to start to see the government, civil society, and different stakeholders taking more decisive action on prevention. It’s so pervasive because of the abusive nature and violent history of South Africa. We haven’t been able to heal as a nation. I would want to see prevention and corrective action working in tandem. We need to prevent gender-based violence from occurring by using effective strategies at an educational level and by reducing the incidence through heightened corrective action, but then also make sure that perpetrators are given methods to correct themselves and get help. We don’t have enough programmes that talk to the perpetrator and show role models who repent, who turn from their ways and change. We do not have the resources to police or even monitor this effectively, and part of the solution must include rehabilitation of offenders at a wider level. You need to help them change. Massifying healing campaigns for victims is also critical for the restoration of women, children, and families that are broken due to violence.