Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Dr Hangwelani Magidimisha was the first Black South African woman to earn a PhD in Regional Planning from UKZN and one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2018.
Here she writes about the continuing struggle for equality and recognition of Black women in South Africa today:
From humble beginnings in the rural village of Ngudza in Thohoyondou in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, I have always enjoyed pursuing education to the highest level and being an academic in the full sense of the profession. I had never pondered how my race and gender would influence the way I was perceived by others – culturally, politically, sexually and socially.
As an academic, I never considered myself different from the norm and believed my academic credentials were a determining factor in my future endeavours. However, this utopian belief has proved to be an illusion in reality. While I celebrated being the first Black South African-born woman to achieve a PhD in Town Planning from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I was not prepared for the bumpy ride ahead. To me the doctorate I earned was supposed to be an automatic passport to progress in the area of leadership – a qualification to empower people, inspire people, lead change and pursue a shared vision from organisational, national and international perspectives.
I didn’t see this coming!
After I had been ushered into leadership systems, I came to realise that institutions could be very daunting environments for Black women and also that there was a serious issue with the lack of adequate Black female representation, especially in senior and managerial positions. On platforms where I represented Black women, I had to work harder to prove to people that I was as qualified and as competent as my male counterparts to occupy leadership positions. At some stage, I was told by male colleagues – for reasons known only to them – that I could not be in a leadership position!
Although there were instances when I felt like I was occupying positions of power without possessing the actual authority to make and influence decisions grateful of those selected few men and women who held my hand to cross daunting moment.
I came to realise that the arrival of a Black female academic into White and/or male dominated environments triggered spasms of racism, sexism and discrimination. The surface images of colourful, happy faces symbolising an all embracing environment are often smoke screens hiding the contradictions behind those scenes.
The institutional environment is an organism with its own traditions and cultures whose members survive through conformity while women as new entrants into the space are at times received with contempt. Those keen to move to leadership roles to quench their appetite for growth are labelled as novices who are ambitious, young and at times incompetent,despite their state of readiness in all respects.
Decision making platforms can be areas manipulated by interest groups and those with different agendas. There are times when viewpoints are taken with a pinch of salt, while criticisms are loaded with malicious intent to undermine authority. While we acknowledge that there are men and women who support Black women they are very few and not enough to make the impact required . They also do so at the risk of being excluded by their peers.
Thus academic credentials and competency for black females in leadership positions are reduced to symbols of benevolence, guilt on the part of the institution and as expressions of political correctness. Indeed Shakespeare’s words that ‘there are daggers in men’s smiles’, summarise the struggle of women in leadership.
How do I maintain my sanity?
I strongly believe that the courage to continue forging ahead counts as success and for that reason:
• I focus on my dreams and not my gender orientation and fear:Fear is often the biggest dream killer. Before even starting we end up in a spiral of self-doubt and worry. A life lived constantly in fear is like sitting in a traffic jam – you never move forward and become more frustrated as time goes by, wondering if things would have been different if you had taken an entirely different route. I believe I am good enough for the role I occupy. I believe I am great despite my gender and race. Above everything, I belong to the human race and whatever any person with equal credentials as mine can do, I am perfectly capable of doing the same. I have never reduced my potential because of race or gender
• I focus on my strengths: My strength has always been based on merit. When I am measured, let it be on the basis of my work. My academic achievements speak for themselves and include publications, lecturing, supervising research students and undertaking research work
• I focus on my character not reputation: Your character is who you are and your reputation is what people think of you. I refuse to be defined by other people’s perception of me. I define myself for myself and that’s freedom of expression. I realised that one thing I am certainly the best at, is not being anyone but me. No-one can be a better version of you than yourself. Hence, I focus on my character and strive to improve that
• I have learned to speak up even when no-one is listening:I, like many Black women, was raised to not speak up (especially for ourselves) since it was deemed disrespectful, inappropriate and taboo in our culture. Most of us were also taught to be silent or to stay out of the conversation in the interests of self-preservation. However, self-preservation takes on a different sense of urgency and meaning as the national and global political landscape continues to shift with regards to discrimination of any kind
• I do not do things to please people:The focus is to do the right thing even if you have no support. People who do not support you but rather discourage you may actually not be bad people who intentionally want to destroy your dreams. Sometimes, they just do not understand why you do what you do, so they voice their concerns, which may make them seem dissenting. I personally try not to take it to heart when people discourage me rather I see it as them needing a little education and clarification. Or sometimes, I just ignore them. Often when people do not support what you are doing, it may be because of their egotistic sentiments. It could be plain ignorance or even jealousy, but some people tend to attack things that are new to them
• I embrace organisation: Every day I constantly strive to understand the rules of organisation and to not break them. In most cases, I seek the help of a mentor and ask for guidance where necessary. This saves time and reduces stress and frustration caused by failure to execute responsibilities due to lack of knowledge or information
• I always keep records of my actions: Although it may seem that record keeping takes a lot of time, it does in fact, help to save time and money. Records provide written evidence of what transpired as well as being a system for you and colleagues to agree on recollections. With good records, you make sure everyone knows what was decided and what needs to be achieved by what date.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal - it is the courage to continue that counts.
Dr Hangwelani Magidimisha is the Academic Leader for Planning and Housing in the College of Humanities.