Saluting strong women: A profile of Minister Naledi Pandor

Stern, strong women, with an aversion to any form of childhood nonsense, have raised many good men and women, often in times of great difficulties, with the hope that their children will make a difference in an ever-evolving world.

“Our parents played a very important role, especially our mother. Our father was very active in politics, in the struggle and so our mother was the one who was at home,” International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor tells SAnews.

While raised by both parents, activists Joe and Fikile Matthews, Minister Pandor specifically remembers the role her mother played, in her obtaining her education despite living in exile.

“I remember that London can be a very cold place, but I remember that even in winter, she would walk us to school to make sure we go into the school gates and go to class,” she recalls.

Her mother she remembers, was very determined that she get her education in whichever country the family found itself in at the time.

“She was very determined that we would be educated and wherever we landed – be it Botswana, Lesotho [or] Zambia. She insisted that education was the most important thing and of course our dad when he was there, would support her in that regard,” she said.

Pandor did not disappoint her parents and went to obtain several qualifications, including a Master’s degree in Education from the University of London.

Befittingly in April 2019 while serving as Minister of Higher Education and Training, Pandor obtained her PhD in Education from the University of Pretoria.

While she has no immediate plans of going back to the lecture room, she is a firm advocate of continuous learning.

“Well I don’t know about studying again. I hope to continue being a student by reading and learning as much as I can.

“But as to going back in the classroom and having young people wonder why I’m there I’m not too sure. I remember the looks I got when I started the PhD,” she says as she pauses for a hearty laugh.

Dr Pandor, who continues to have a keen interest in education and linguistics, believes the future of education and a “lot of life activity” is closely associated with information technology.

She said the use of virtual means of education and communication is going to become increasingly important.

“I think we are going to see many more online courses, some of our universities and colleges were not able to continue offering students teaching programmes because of the inadequacy of their IT capabilities.

“I believe that once we are all freed of this current COVID-19 crisis, you’re going to see much more attention towards online learning.”

With the world continuing to evolve and being more inclusive of women in various fields, South Africa has also been striving to have more women voices heard.

With the country today celebrating Women’s Day under lockdown, government has made advances in achieving gender transformation, which includes legal protection, increased access to basic services such as water, electricity, housing, and free health-care to the poor.

One of the most significant has been the advancement of women representation and gender equality across the state machinery.

Representation of women Ministers in Cabinet increased from 11% in April 1994 to 50% following the April 2019 National Elections.

However, the notion of the first woman to do this or the other, continues to have a bearing on life today.

This is despite the fact that following the 2019 elections, 46.1% of women held seats in Parliament, up from the 11% seen in the first democratic elections in 1994.

“There has been a great deal of progress made particularly in democratic South Africa and we should celebrate that, however, there’s still a great deal to be done. The level of inequality that we have, not just in our country but worldwide, means there’s a great deal of work to be done to ensure gender equality,” she said in an interview with SAnews.

As fate would have it, Pandor was the first woman to become chairperson of the National Council of Provinces back in 1999.

“I think that this thing of first woman, first black, almost suggests that you’re in that position because of gender or colour and it denies recognition of the talent that those individuals have, the skills and the experience that they’ve built up over a long time,” said the Minister.

She cautioned that while it is good to celebrate the achievements of women, one should be weary of falling into the trap of diminishing women’s achievements.

“So we should be careful when we celebrate that we don’t diminish the capabilities of the individuals that are appointed. I think we have talent but we have been denied the opportunity. It is not that we did not have talented people before; it is just that they were not allowed into the room. Now they are, and we are beginning to see what is possible.”

She also points out that there are still areas of resistance that require attention.

In March 2019, Cabinet adopted a Gender-Responsive Planning, Budgeting, Monitoring, Evaluation and Auditing Framework to ensure the mainstreaming of gender priorities.

In addition to obtaining their education, the Minister has urged young women to forge healthy friendships as part of their toolbox to reaching their dreams.

“Friends are important, the circle you build are important and don’t give up on education, it’s absolutely the greatest empowerment that you would have,” she said.

Families also form an integral part of one achieving their dreams she said.

“Being in international relations, I’ve learned that being in contact with other people helps to stop your prejudices and the perspectives you have on others which are often uninformed perspectives. So widen your circle as that stops you from being threatened by the presence of others,” said the Minister.

Pandor who first became a Member of Parliament in democratic South Africa in 1994, has held various Ministerial positions.

Asked about which has been her favourite portfolio, Pandor refers to education as the love of her life.

She has however also discovered that science and technology is her other love.

“I believe that we as Africa should do much more than we are doing now to invest in science, research and innovation. I believe there’s a future for that. Through education, I think that we have so many talented young people and what I loved in [the Department of] Education was meeting that talent and in [the Department of] Science and Technology, I saw how education and science can help to advance a nation,” she said.

Pandor who has served as Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) for over a year now, reflected on her current work, which has allowed her to know the different political and developmental thinking around the world.

“There still continues to be many divides in our world. We haven’t yet arrived at a common humane philosophy and I have been somewhat appalled by the level of division between the wealthy nations and the poor nations. I think we need to build a stronger basis of collaboration for development because we can’t have so many people left behind,” she said.

The Minister has also been pleased to see that the African Union (AU) is beginning to position itself as a significant continental body.

“I hope we as South Africa will continue to give support to the AU. I believe it is the institution that will help Africa to advance its development goals.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Pandor has continued to hold virtual meetings with other Ministers of International Relations around the world where experiences with the pandemic, are shared.

‘So we are spending over 80% of our day in front of a computer having virtual exchanges. We remain very active internationally but it is virtual so we’ve all learned to utilise ICT to a very good effect.”

With COVID-19 having disrupted daily life forcing the world to adapt to a new normal, Pandor like many around the country has had to adjust to life with the wearing of a cloth facemask when heading out in public.

“Well you have to be more careful. I don’t like wearing masks but I have to because I have to protect myself and the people around me. I suppose it also makes you much more nervous plus you don’t have much human interaction and I’m a “hugger” by nature,” she smiles.

The new normal has also posed challenges for the field of diplomacy.

“Diplomacy is also about friendships, so we shake hands and we hug. It’s been quite terrible because if you meet colleagues you want to rush forward but then you remember that oops you can’t do that! Instead of that welcoming look, people look horrified [as if to say] don’t touch me!”

The pandemic, she says, has made people more nervous about interacting with others.

COVID-19 lockdown regulations have resulted in many South Africans not seeing their loved ones.

“Of course we don’t see our children because of no family visits. But since we are the ones who are putting the restrictions in place, I think we have an important role in ensuring that we observe all the restrictions as a an example to the rest of our community,” says the mother of two sons and two daughters.

With citizens forced to move most of their lives onto digital platforms to get groceries or to conduct meetings with their work colleagues among others, Pandor admits to having had to sharpen her technological skills.

“I’ve had to learn how to use virtual means. I constantly forget to unmute as I talk away, and it has been a very good learning experience. I’m a better user of technology because of COVID-19,”she giggles.

We live in a constantly changing world where women struggle with developing self-confidence due to the surrounding environments they may find themselves in, such as abusive relationships and gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide.

As the country today commemorates the 64th anniversary of the 1956 women’s protest march to the Union Buildings, government has taken steps to address the upsurge of violence against women and children.

Cabinet has recently approved a collection of laws in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s September 2019 commitment to address the scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide.

These include the approval for submission to Parliament of the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill, which strengthens application of the Domestic Violence Act.

Among others, the amendments enhances penalties and recognises repeat or serial offenders with regards to sentencing.

While the country wages war against GBV and femicide, Pandor also spoke about the importance of empowering women in the economy.

“One of the lessons we have noted during the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular as a result of the restrictions and lockdowns that governments put in place, is that women continue to be in vulnerable economic situations. We have to attend to the empowerment, economically of women. We have to ensure that they have access to financial support for their businesses.”

She said women, as the bedrock of society, must be supported in their business ventures so that they can run businesses that earn them and their families’ decent livelihoods.

“We need to empower women to play their full role in society,” she said.

Pandor also paid homage to women health workers who find themselves at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I must say that it has been women as health workers, and as members of the family who have saved many lives during this crisis and we salute those women, particularly our health workers for the incredible role that they’ve played.”

Asked about what she wishes her younger self knew today, Pandor said she would have taken better care of her health.

“That she should not become fat, that is my one regret in life. I’ve not watched my weight properly. I was a very slim young person and I think I let myself go. Not that I’m prejudiced against people my size, but I don’t think it’s a good thing to allow yourself to become that and it’s my fault, not anybody else’s. I tell my daughters all the time to keep their shape,” she says as she laughs.

In her spare time, the Minister who refers to herself as “just Naledi, the daughter of Joe and Fikile Matthews, a teacher by profession” and as someone who is hard-working and loves to learn and is a patriot -loves reading and listening to music.

Music of the 80s and 90’s as well as reggae get her feet tapping.

“From time to time, on a Sunday morning, when I’m in the kitchen on my own, I have particular radio stations I listen to and I like to jive along as I work and nobody must come in,” she says of her ritual.

In all likelihood, Pandor who devours thrillers in her spare time, is tapping her foot to some of her favourite tunes in her kitchen this Sunday morning, as we celebrate Women’s Day.
This was first published on 9 August 2020 on SA Gov News