More than five years ago, she found herself on the wrong side of history when South Africa’s ruling party opted for leaders whom it believed would be more connected to the country’s poor and working class.
But now Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who has been in the background since then, has been appointed as a leader of the world’s largest bureaucracy, the United Nations (UN).
For the next four years, she will serve as the executive director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, known colloquially as UN Women.
“It’s always been a defining feature for me, that if anything works, it must work for women. I have always known that this is my benchmark and I must get there as quickly as possible… If I cannot facilitate change, God forbid!” she says.
The body, which was formed in 2010, is tasked with promoting women’s rights and their participation in global affairs. UN Women can boast some successes, such as helping women gain seats in seven national elections, and reforming laws and policies in 26 countries to increase women’s access to economic assets and social protection.
But Mlambo-Ngcuka has her work cut out for her. Although there are calls, which she supports, to develop a stand-alone UN goal to achieve gender equality, the organization faces serious challenges, including inadequate funding.
Also, in a time when the world has to deal with economic uncertainty, more than often, budget cuts negatively affect the progress of women and entrench gender inequalities.
Mlambo-Ngcuka joins a list of women who were shining stars in former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet and have since left the country to take up international positions… Mlambo-Ngcuka, African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and special envoy on gender at the African Development Bank, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, could all, arguably, in their own right lead South Africa.
However, the experience Mlambo-Ngcuka gained while she served in government, and her well-known
tenacity, will now be put to use on the global stage.
She insists Africa will be a priority, but not at the expense of other regions.
“When you think about Africa, the first thing that comes to your mind is poverty. And yet there’s a lot of good things in Africa… I want for us to start picturing a different Africa and bring forward that Africa does have resources. That there is a fighting spirit that we need to harness,” she says.
Mlambo-Ngcuka is not alone in her approach. For far too long, Africa has been depicted as the begging bowl of the world , a perception that Dlamini-Zuma also wants to remedy.
Mlambo-Ngcula says she plans to work closely with Dlamini-Zuma, as well as Africa’s two women presidents, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia and Malawi’s Joyce Banda.
“I would want to go to these women on the issues I’m going to be pushing forward as they relate to Africa. I actually want to harness their stature and the influence they have to make a push. Also, I will need them in working with the other leaders in Africa.”
There are strategic countries on the continent whose buy-in Mlambo-Ngcuka will have to get, such as Nigeria, with its wealth of powerful and influential women.
Women across the world face a multitude of challenges, which change in severity depending on where they live and what their social standing is. Mlambo-Ngcuka believes that if she can improve the quality of education and reproductive health, her time at the UN will not have been wasted.
“One of the things that is uniquely disabling sometimes to women, is failure to address their reproductive health. Women have an unwanted baby when they are not ready to support the child. You trigger inter-generational poverty and the life of that woman comes to a standstill. So allowing women to reach their full potential without having to deal with the responsibility of having a family they have not planned for, is, for me, very important.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka took office in August 2013 and has a number of initial ideas on how she will improve UN Women. When her predecessor, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, resigned to focus on politics, she was criticized in some quarters for not leaving much of a legacy. Some of this was blamed on her role being confined to raising awareness about women’s living conditions and UN Women having no executive powers.
“I don’t want to be all gung-ho right at the beginning, and maybe create that vibe for myself, but really, I am also concerned. I cannot leave my country to be a token. We need to do something that is destiny-changing for women.
“In my discussions with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, he made it very clear it is important that we make an impact on women. I am hoping that I can lean on him and when it turns out actually that there isn’t scope for that, I can go and speak to him.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka’s strategy is not to reinvent the wheel, but to build on what people are currently doing. Her aim is to give UN Women a much stronger presence and make sure that women’s issues are more visible.
“I want to make sure women are in your face… I just feel our voice is a bit muzzled, a bit timid. And I feel that this is one time where you want to lead from the front.”
Quarantine Reflections: How Businesses Must Lead From The Heart Now
Bisila Bokoko, born in the Equatorial Guinea, raised in Spain and now resident in New York as a businesswoman, communications consultant and motivational speaker, is a global citizen like no other.
Straddling these regions for her wine and sports retail businesses and a library project she is spearheading in Senegal, Bokoko has been on self-quarantine for the last four weeks in her Manhattan apartment, after a recent work trip to Spain.
Here, she sheds light on the Covid-19 crisis that she says has made her more reflective of how she needs to rethink her businesses. “It is an extremely confusing and challenging time with such a huge impact on everything,” she says. “Life is never going to be the same again.”
The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we eat, shop and consume, she adds, with the most dramatic change happening in retail, because of changing values and new priorities.
“The center is going to be the human being, and the wellbeing of the human,” says Bokoko. “And this will not be from an individual perspective, but in relation to each other. We have to be a more collaborative economy, because how we are, will affect everyone else. As leadership, we now need to lead from the heart.”
In this FORBES AFRICA interview, Bokoko speaks to Managing Editor Renuka Methil, also about how the current crisis will throw up new opportunities for local African art and the fashion business.
New York On Lockdown
As I walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park, gazing at the magnificent Manhattan skyline on the East River, at first glance it looks as crowded as it usually does. However, if you look closer, it’s not your typical mixture of tourists with their cacophony of foreign languages, photographers with tripods, or teenagers on skateboards. The park is filled with lone joggers, parents in yoga pants pushing double strollers and carefully guarding kids on scooters. No one plays volleyball in the sand by the river. No one picnics in the barbecue area. Everyone keeps a friendly and polite distance, some people wear face masks. And yet, it doesn’t really look like social distancing, or the lockdown that it is–ordered by the mayor and the governor of New York in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.
That peaceful picture of joggers and children playing shouldn’t fool anyone. The five boroughs of New York City – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx — are hit hard by the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. With the death toll rising – 678 patients had died in overcrowded New York City hospitals by March 28, and the number of cases in New York state has surpassed 53,000; the five boroughs of New York have become the epicenter of the pandemic.
The healthcare system is overwhelmed. I spoke with four medical professionals in the city and they all confirm the disturbing reality that is in the news. The hospitals don’t have enough protective gear, single use masks have been reused, hospitals do not have enough beds and ventilators. Medical personnel intubate patients non-stop, assisting them with breathing. The city hospitals have set up makeshift tents to triage COVID-19 patients as well as to act as morgues. The government’s delayed response to the virus’s spread is costing many, many lives.
One thing that is striking about New Yorkers – my home of seventeen years – is how people come together and support each other. After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001; during the power outage in 2003, when the entire city went dark for hours; and after the devastating hurricane Sandy in 2012.
On the day when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, New Yorkers, predominantly liberal democrats, were especially sensitive with each other, calmly sharing their sadness and expressing worry for the future of their country. Today, when schools, non-essential stores, bars and restaurants are closed, and many people are isolating and trying to follow social distancing guidelines, members of communities come together to help each other: buying food for older neighbors, helping with disinfecting door knobs and elevator buttons. Mental health professionals volunteer their services to the anxious and scared. At grocery stores and pharmacies only a few people are allowed in at a time, people are waiting outside, standing about two meters apart, and the doormen pour out hand sanitizer into people’s palms.
Besides solidarity and respect, there is also fear and anxiety. Service and food industry workers are out of work, facing months of hardships. According to the New York State Labor department, during the first days of the lockdown, in some parts of the state, there was a 1,000% increase in unemployment claims as 1.7 million people called to file for benefits. Well over a million children from financially strained families relied on school lunches, and those are now provided at meal sites. But that also means the disparity in incomes in New York has been underscored by the Covid 19 impact, and the inequality between the haves and have-nots will continue to be exposed.
Forbes headquarters in New Jersey has been working remotely since the first week of March. We quickly re-organized: the entire company of 400 people has migrated into a virtual workplace, with a highly mobilized virtual newsroom. Besides holding daily meetings and video calls, our teams get together for virtual hangouts to keep each other’s spirits up.
The city authorities were slow to respond to the Covid-19 spread. For weeks, when it was clear the crisis was imminent, eight million New Yorkers commuted in crowded subways, went to crowded restaurants and bars, and also traveled to and from crowded international airports, breathing in each other’s air.
In the absence of the pandemic team, fired by Trump in 2018, the federal government’s response was slow to respond to the disaster. The Trump administration failed to prevent this crisis underestimating the danger of Covid-19: “We have it totally under control,” he said in January, when the virus was already spreading. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” The government failed to test people in a timely manner. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio and the governor Andew Cuomo stepped in and tried to help the hospitals secure supplies and additional testing stations. They are still trying.
Meanwhile, the city is contemplating closing parks and other public places. Maybe even prohibiting people from leaving their homes, or perhaps prohibiting them from leaving New York itself. For the next few weeks, the Big Apple will stay confined indoors. Stay home, don’t spread, save lives.
–Katya Soldak, Forbes Staff, Business
Here’s How Much It Could Cost If We Stop Social Distancing
Topline: This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.
- If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times.
- If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
- There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion).
- If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
- Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
- “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department.
- University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved.
Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for.
Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times.
Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920.
Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user.
– Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff
Download issues of Forbes Africa
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa April 2020 - 30 Under 30 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa March 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa February 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa December 2019/ January 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa November 2019 R50.00
Subscribe to Forbes Africa
How Steve Aoki Is Staying Creative While Stuck At Home | Ask The Expert | Forbes
A Physician’s Perspective On The Coronavirus Pandemic | Forbes
A Famous Street Falls Silent: Luring Locals Only Way After The Lockdown
Waffle House’s Struggles Highlight How Coronavirus Is Killing Restaurants | Forbes
Tattoo Artist Dani Egna On Staying Focused And Inspired | Unfiltered | Forbes
- Video4 weeks ago
Clara Foods’ Arturo Elizondo Is Creating Egg Proteins To Replace The Need For Poultry | Forbes
- Health3 days ago
[BREAKING] Coronavirus Update: Global COVID-19 cases pass one million
- Health4 weeks ago
Here’s The Worst Places To Travel Because Of The COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak
- Entertainment3 weeks ago
DJ Zinhle: The ‘Lazy Kid’ Who Achieved Platinum Success
- Entrepreneurs3 weeks ago
Jack Welch: Managerial Genius Who Made One Disastrous Mistake
- Brand Voice2 weeks ago
FOCUS ON NIGERIA: The Next Level For Africa
- Brand Voice4 weeks ago
A Decade of Gert-Johan Coetzee
- Woman3 weeks ago
Clothes Encounters In The Congo: How Fashion Can Be Used As A Tool For Social Change