Connect with us

Driving Ambition

IN PICTURES | South Africa’s first black female helicopter pilot for SAPS uplifts young women



It was an offbeat love affair at dizzying heights, when a young woman from the northern parts of South Africa stumbled on an opportunity that led to her becoming the first black woman to pilot a helicopter in the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Refilwe Ledwaba, born and bred in Lenyenye, a semi-rural township in the Limpopo province of South Africa, found herself at her wits’ end when she could not pursue a career in science due to outstanding university fees.

Today, as she soars the African skies as a contract flyer for various charter companies on the continent, her distant past keeps her grounded. 

By turning challenges to opportunities, this University of Cape Town and Bachelor of Science candidate, ended up at an interview for a position in an industry she knew nothing about.

“I think that it was one of my down moments because I am thinking that I worked so hard. I did well at university. I am supposed to go to medical school but I can’t go now and now I have to become an air hostess. You think life dealt you another blow, but that is when everything changed,” she says.

Pilot Refilwe Ledwaba. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Honesty, determination and the $7,260 outstanding fees secured her a position as a cabin attendant at the lowest point of her life.

Her unique passion for aviation grew over time; she gave in to the persuasion from instructors at the Comair training center and eventually trained as a pilot.

Today, the 39-year-old is ready to open this world for generations to come.

Ledwaba credits the  journey, which started in the early 2000s, a time when the country was still going through political transition, to the strong women in her community. 

“The environment shaped who I am today. I was surrounded by strong women. I was exposed to academic women. My mother was a school principal and my sisters went to university. The women in the community were mostly teachers and doctors,” she says.

Despite the absence of a single mother who worked seven days a week, Ledwaba always had a strong support system from her community which filled the void; there was always someone around to take care of her.

Using her life-story as a backdrop, the founder of the Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry created the non-profit organization in 2009 with the core purpose of addressing the challenges she faced when entering the industry.

By breaking cultural and social barriers in aviation at the grassroot level, Ledwaba aspires to make aviation a norm for women through the Girls Fly Programme in Africa foundation.

This, she believes, can be achieved by exposing young girls to the industry at a young age, with hands-on training courses and life skills in aviation.

“Limitations are not imposed by the community, they are created structurally. There are limitations imposed as to what you can be, you become what you see. If you are surrounded by teachers and doctors, that will be the limit in terms of what you will be,” she says.

Ledwaba is currently working on a documentary project that traces the history of South African women in aviation.

By documenting the untold stories of African women in aviation, she hopes to highlight the fact that women have proven themselves capable in male-dominated industries for years.

Pilot Refilwe Ledwaba at work. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“It is almost as if have we regressed. We no longer  have women’s flying clubs. You hardly hear that women are competing now. But they did it back in the 1940s, that is why I feel it is important to touch that history. It needs to be in the museums, we need to go to museums and read these stories about the women so that it is no longer an event that women are flying,” she says.

The former Comair trainee is qualified to fly both helicopters and aeroplanes.

Jacky Fisha, CEO of FlyFofa, a South African-based aviation company, says women and men need to work together to ensure that transformation in the industry provides opportunities, from management to the cockpit.

Jacky Fisha, CEO of FlyFofa, a South African-based aviation company. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“I see women taking over; if we work together, it will happen. We are trying to bring ideas that will not only benefit us as small private companies but things that will benefit the country. We are trying to reduce the unemployment rate, we are training girls as well,” she says.

A process that will take time but with adequate education and training, “there will be more women than men in the cockpit”.

Ledwaba discovered the industry in her late teens and was forced to learn on the go.

“Every pilot has a story and it is usually from a very young age. They will tell you that as far back as four-years-old they used to watch aircraft or build model aircraft … In Tzaneen [in Limpopo], we didn’t have any airport and there was no aircraft flying over us. I had never seen one, or been in on one until university. It was my first time being up close and flying in one,” she says.

The people who believed in her played a crucial role.

Pilot training pamphlets left in her locker and hints that she should be in a pilot class instead of training to be cabin crew gave her the impetus to step out of her comfort zone.

The hardest part of her training was flying a helicopter solo during her time with SAPS. 

FlyFofa, a South African-based aviation company. Picture:Gypseenia Lion

She was ready to quit.

“I used to weigh 49kgs and for you to fly a helicopter solo, at minimum, you need to weight 70 kgs because of the center of gravity, otherwise the helicopter will just hang. You need to balance it,” says Ledwaba. Ready to leave SAPS, her paperwork was signed but her heart was not closed to the idea completely.

Dressed in shorts and t-shirt, instead of her uniform, she made her way to what was going to be her last flight. However, it turned out to be the first of the 2,500 hours she would clock during the course of her career as a pilot.

“After hovering the helicopter a few meters above ground a couple of times, the instructor realized that it was not in the gravitational center. He got off and calculated everything. He knew I needed extra weight so he took a brick and put it in. He got off and on the radio he told me to take off, and here I am today,” she says.

Working in the SAPS not only exposed her to the most dangerous parts of the country, but it also developed her skills as a pilot and a woman.

“My instructor always told me ‘Refilwe, open your legs’. Now imagine a man saying to you ‘open your legs’, what comes into your head? But he is saying ‘open your legs’ so that you can control. Those are some of the cultural differences. So imagine a little black girl sitting there and the instructor keeps saying ‘open your legs’ and the more he said ‘open your legs’, the more I closed them. The more I did this, the more I controlled the aircraft with my legs [instead of my hands] and that is why I could not take-off properly,” she says.

With a sandbag adding weight and a little more confidence, she adapted to an environment created with men in mind. She gradually learned on the job.

The helicopters responded to crime-call outs ranging from murders to lengthy surveillance operations. “It is not for the faint-hearted. You get shot at while flying,” she recalls the times she recovered dead bodies in remote areas.

Now in the commercial airline industry, worlds apart from chasing the bad guys above the ground, her flights are more structured and regulated.

Ledwaba had a hard time adapting to the cleaner side of flying. From take-off to the final landing, procedures are followed thoroughly.

She now uses her experiences from both worlds to provide a multi-faceted education to her students. The future for women in aviation is positive, she affirms.

With adjustable cockpits in airlines that are suited for all shapes and sizes, Ledwaba says it’s a misconception that men are natural flyers and that it will change in time.

Pilot Refilwe Ledwaba. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“I never got to be a captain but in the airlines, I used to listen to the captain welcoming the passengers when we land and you could hear the pride in his voice. ‘We carried you safely and we landed.’ I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says.

The industry is not what it was 10 years ago and this pilot is ready to do whatever it takes to come out on top.

Continue Reading

Current Affairs

Ethiopia’s First Female President On Plans To Combat Covid-19 And Resuscitate The Economy



Ethiopia’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, spoke to FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, on the country’s plans to combat Covid-19 and resuscitate one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.

Zewde, listed as one of Africa’s ‘50 Most Powerful Women’ in the March issue of FORBES AFRICA, says while the virus didn’t warrant the nation going into complete lockdown, it has hit some sectors of the East African country’s economy, affecting its GDP growth.

In early May, the government announced a package to bolster healthcare spending, food distribution, rebuild SMMEs, etc to support the country’s most vulnerable. Zewde also shares her views on women in the front lines, as well as reimagining education.

Continue Reading

Driving Ambition

The Master Strategist: How Mteto Nyati Developed A Reputation As A Turnaround Specialist And Ethical Leader



What is the one formula this business leader thinks is critical to transforming companies and society?

Mteto Nyati was born from humble beginnings in Umtata, a poor town in the Eastern Cape, a province of South Africa, during the height of apartheid, but he refused to allow his circumstances to define him.

By remaining true to himself from an early age, embracing who he is, a term he describes as personal mastering, focusing on the things he can change and sticking to his core values of family, fairness, excellence and integrity, his career has rapidly progressed.

The mechanical engineer has held various leadership positions at the South African operations of multinational companies, such as IBM and Microsoft where he has fine-tuned and refined his leadership style to become a master strategist, developing a reputation as a turnaround specialist and ethical leader.

From Microsoft, Nyati joined pan-African telecommunications network provider MTN and in 2017, South African-listed Allied Electronics Corporation Limited (Altron), where he is currently CEO.

The highly self-aware and introverted businessman has transformed Altron into a serious contender in the technology space globally with plans to expand into the Netherlands, Malaysia and India.

In less than three years, he has more than doubled Altron’s valuation taking it to just over $642 million. 

His success has not gone unnoticed. In 2019, he won the Business Leader of the Year award at the CNBC Africa All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLAs) and the IPM CEO Special Award from the Institute of People Management.

Dressed simply but elegantly, in a navy blue blazer and light-blue shirt, the author of the number one best-seller, Betting On a Darkie, with candor shares his secrets of success with FORBES AFRICA.

With acuity, the story-teller says his success lies firstly in his team. 

“It is really not about one individual, it is about building a capable team of people.”

 To do this, you need to find the best people, surround yourself with them, and not be afraid to hire those that are even stronger than you in different areas, he adds.

Nyati asserts it is something he has done in almost all his jobs.

Secondly, he attributes his accomplishments to strategy.

“You always need to know where the company is going, your strategy is critical,” he remarks.

“But you need to design the strategy with others and give it time.

“I take at least three months.”

Why? Because it takes time to engage with various stakeholders, from customers to employees.

The inclusiveness of that process is also very important, says Nyati, as is “making sure that not one stakeholder but various stakeholders including your customers” are part of your strategy formation process so that the strategy you come up with is relevant for the company and talking to what your customers are looking for.

In developing his strategy, Nyati talks to employees and gets them to ask some tough questions like ‘where are we failing, where are we missing opportunities’?

The erudite CEO feels speaking to employees is crucial as they know why customers are frustrated.

“If you don’t ask and find out from them, you won’t be able to pick up that information,” asserts Nyati.

It is also critical, he adds, as “then the strategy that you come up with becomes a strategy that the employees can relate to because in reality, it is a strategy that was formed by them.

“When you go and present and say ‘these are the areas of focus, we need to concentrate on this, we need to fix this and fix that’, the things that you are talking about are the things they told you need fixing so they will embrace the strategy quickly.”

This formula, however, was not something Nyati followed throughout his career. 

“It is something that grows. You learn, you try this, you try that and you read about how other people are doing things so over time, I have come up with some kind of formula but it is not how I used to do things 20 years ago, it is something that has been built over a period of time,” he reveals.

Asked if it was something he finessed at Altron, Nyati responds, “no, not at Altron, not at all. I would say that it would be at Microsoft”, which at the time was dealing with multiple challenges from staff to customer retention.

“The practices that I am talking about I used at Microsoft, the same way that I did it at MTN to try and address the challenges. I did not change anything when I came to Altron but I started putting together this formula at Microsoft,” he says pensively. 

Having taken firm control of the steering wheel at Altron, Nyati wants to help the company that operates in seven African countries, and a few outside of the continent, become more global so that it gets a significant amount of its revenue and profits outside of South Africa.

He also wants Altron to become a paragon of an inclusive society.

Reflecting on this, Nyati says he wants to “demonstrate that you can have an entity where regardless of who you are – black, white, Indian or colored – we can have these people working together towards a common goal and being able to do great things. We need to show our country there is value in diversity, there is so much value in embracing everybody and that is what I am trying to do in Altron and I am amazed at how the people of Altron have embraced that strategy themselves and they are pushing and helping us do great things.”

More broadly, he would like to awaken the giant within society, something he has already started at Altron.

“We have got so much as individuals we can offer but we are playing way below our potential as human beings,” elucidates Nyati.

That is something this meliorist would like to change.

If he can lift that game and help individuals see their own potential and act on that potential, regardless of their background, Nyati says he would have achieved his mission in life. Ponder that. 

Monique Vanek

Continue Reading

Driving Ambition

How To Successfully Negotiate Your Salary




With unemployment at a low 3.6%, American workers have been enjoying a candidate-friendly market, and many have used it to their advantage. According to a recent survey by recruiting firm Robert Half, 54% of job seekers negotiated for a higher payout before accepting their most recent position. Of those who didn’t ask for more, nearly one fifth said it was because they felt uncomfortable doing so.

“Anyone who has the experience is in demand,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. “Everybody should feel comfortable negotiating compensation today.”

Negotiating can be intimidating, but with a little preparation, job seekers can be better equipped to walk away with what they’re worth. Here are three keys to a successful salary negotiation, plus what to do if the hiring manager doesn’t budge. 

1. Do Your Research

While hiring managers often discuss pay with candidates early on in the hiring process, with 35% of respondents reporting that the subject of salary came up in their first in-person interviews, McDonald advises against negotiating before an offer has been made. If salary range does come up, use that as the starting point to research industry averages for the role at hand, using online resources like Glassdoor’s salary tools and Payscale’s salary calculator as your guide. Another form of compensation that’s worth considering is benefits. A flexible work arrangement or student loan reimbursement, for example, may not pad your paycheck, but they are perks that could boost your bank account. Whatever you do, don’t overshoot—that could be a turnoff. Flexibility and knowing your market worth is key, he says. 

2. Establish Your Must-Haves And Your Nice-To-Haves

Before you go into a salary negotiation, determine what you need and what you can do without. “If you’re interviewing for a new role, or if you’re going to your current employer for the annual salary review, know what your priorities are,” McDonald says. “Take the emotion out of it and be really in tune with what’s important to you.” Not being able to articulate what matters most can cost you a few extra thousand dollars, or even the position itself. 

3. Practice Makes Perfect

There’s no better way to calm prenegotiation nerves than to practice. McDonald recommends role-playing with trusted colleagues, mentors or recruiters so that you can get feedback from those who have been on different sides of the table. As you craft your pitch, remember to make liberal use of the words “we” and “us.” “It’s always good to try and join the parties when you’re negotiating,” McDonald says. Something as simple as “There are a few things that I’d like us to discuss” can demonstrate to the hiring manager that you’re a team player. For instance:  

“I’m so thrilled that you’ve extended an offer and I’m really enthusiastic about the role! I know I’d be the right fit for the [co. name] team and based on what we’ve discussed during the interview process, my background and experience align really well with the expectations of the job. I’m hoping we can discuss the offer you presented because based on my research, the salaries in our area for [job title] are typically around [number]. I’m confident you’ll be pleased with what I’ll bring to the role and organization and I’m looking forward to contributing.” 

Next Steps

It is unlikely that your negotiation will end with you receiving an immediate “yes,” so leave by offering to continue the conversation. If the hiring manager doesn’t follow up regarding your request or just won’t budge, ask yourself if you can still afford to take the opportunity. If the answer is no, tell the company right away. “Don’t ghost the opportunity,” McDonald says. “Regardless of how it all turns out, always be professional, always be courteous, always be objective.”

Samantha Todd, Forbes Staff, Leadership Strategy

Continue Reading