Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: ‘I Owe Most Of My Breakthroughs To The Supportive And Tough Leadership of Both Men and Women’

Published 1 year ago


In 2022, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka took home the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Lifetime Achievement Award at the 7th annual Leading Women Summit. The former UN Women Executive Director’s recent appointment as the Chairperson of The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Advisory Committee on Human Rights is just one example of how success has no age limit.

“Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka has devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality, and social justice, and her experience will help the IOC enhance respect for human rights across our three spheres of responsibility,” said IOC President Thomas Bach in a December statement after her appointment.


Mlambo-Ngcuka was born in Clermont, a township of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, which housed multiple notable residents like Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita (chairperson of the Standard Bank Group), actor Muzi Mthabela and former anti-apartheid activist Eric Mtshali.

Having attended schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, and England, the start of Mlambo-Ngcuka’s illustrious career began in the 1980s when she started at some of the world’s largest organizations in Geneva, to take up the position as the coordinator at World YWCA, where she established a global program for young women.

“I owe most of my breakthroughs to supportive and tough leadership of both men and women who assigned me to take up roles I learned a lot from,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says to FORBES AFRICA.

She was in Geneva from 1984 to 1989 and then returned to South Africa where she spearheaded TEAM in Cape Town, an ecumenical organization that focused on upskilling women, and where she was held to a high standard as a leader in the women’s movement, especially in the fight against apartheid.


“These were leaders who were both inspiring and they set the bar high and gave support when I faced challenges.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka has dedicated her career to “issues of human rights, equality and social justice, with a specific emphasis on gender and youth development”. In a 2022 interview with Global Citizen, she reflected about being part of the apartheid regime as a young South African activist which is why she has so much respect for young people fighting for equal opportunities today.

“[Young people] will take whatever steps necessary to achieve their objectives,” Mlambo-Ngcuka told Global Citizen. “…This is where you can see that it is really necessary to open up and allow young people to play the role they want to play in providing leadership and solutions in society.”

Her political career in South Africa also consisted of her working “tirelessly” to build and create policies and programs to diminish inequality, which began in 1994 when she became a member of the first democratically-elected South African Parliament. In 2005, she became the first woman to hold the position of Deputy President, the highest-ranking female political leader in the history of South Africa.


According to the University of the Witwatersrand, located in one of South Africa’s biggest economic hubs; Johannesburg, her 2005 appointment as the country’s first female Deputy President was not “only a win for women but it paved the way for sharper policies to unlock bottlenecks that suppressed economic growth”.

Mlambo-Ngcuka was happy to see change.

“Men are still dominating in most fields,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says. “Change is slow and it will not be permanent if we don’t focus on making it permanent.”

In data released by the World Bank showing the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments for South Africa was only 33% in 2008. In 2021, that number rose to 47%, making South Africa the second-highest in having female members in parliament, Rwanda being the first with 61%.


“As women get into decision-making in parliaments, private sector boards, civil society,” Mlambo-Ngcuka further tells FORBES AFRICA, “they must ensure policies and special measures that promote women and sustain those roles. Ensure women gain irreversible momentum.

“Younger women have to keep rising and taking up space. The older good men and women must provide a support system, offer them opportunities and continuous push. Education in this context is critical but education alone is not enough; own drive and support are necessary. Young women must never forget the importance of sisterhood and organizing.”

In 2021, after completing her term as United Nations’ (UN) Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, her colleagues and friends bid her farewell describing her as a visionary inter-generational champion.

But this not mean slowing down in any way for Mlambo-Ngcuka as she continues to be engaged and affiliated with organizations committed to education, women empowerment, and gender equality.


“In 50 years, we should not be talking about female leaders, we should just be talking about leaders.” Mlambo-Ngcuka concludes. There should be a representation of women at higher echelons as a norm.

Both men and women should play an equal role in leadership with no spotlight on women. This is what we are working towards.”