By Staff Reporter
South Africa marks the 2017 Women’s Month under the theme “The Year of OR Tambo: Women united in moving South Africa forward”. This month is dedicated to women as a tributeto the thousands of women who took part in the historic 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings against the pass laws of the oppressive apartheid government.
Women’s month a call to action for the current generation of women to continue the struggle towards the total liberation and empowerment of women.
ANC Today speaks to Azola Zuma, CEO Sanlam Investment Management, on the strides we have made and the most pressing challenges facing women in South Africa.
Question 1: What are some the key ingredients that have led to your success?
Azola: It has been a combination of things. Firstly, like many, you get role models as you growing up. My mom is one of those. From a very young age, my mom used to wake up at 04:00 am, to see to it that she puts bread on the table, educate her four kids. She got divorced when I was about a year and two months old, she had to fend for herself and provide for her kids. She had to work very long hours. A very strong women, she was the person that you could go to, she provided comfort and the support.
There’s is a lot of sacrifice that went into ensuring that we receive the basic education. I didn’t come from a well to do family. When it came to me having to go to tertiary, I applied to only one University and that was the University of Cape Town, because I wanted to get the best tertiary education there was at the time. We didn’t have a plan. We didn’t know how we were going to fund my Business Science Degree. Luckily, government at the time had put in place, what is today known as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), to assist needy students to access education. Essentially, NSFAS pays for your education if you pass in any particular academic year, 40% of that gets converted into a bursary and effectively you only are liable for the 60%. In short, government took me through school. However, there were living expenses. My mom had to take care of those. It was that unrelenting spirit of wanting to get that education no matter what that got me through. My mom didn’t have a plan, but, we had to make a plan, and government came through for our family.
I attained my business science degree, and then I entered the work environment. Generally, ambition is one the things that has been a driver, just in terms of how I tackle life and how I approach any obstacles that are in my way. I am a go getter, those I work with can tell you that once I have set my mind to something, I will not let up until I get it.
It is that unrelenting spirit of pursuing your goal that kept me going. Being clear in terms of what your goals are and relentlessly pursing them. Having the discipline to ensure that you followup and follow your goals and see them to their logical conclusion
2. What would you say are some of the key challenges that women continue to face?
Azola: There are a number of challenges facing women in South Africa and in the World. The World Economic Forum (WEF) released their 2016 global gender gab report, the mere fact that there are even reports to track this particular set of circumstances is, for me, astounding. Considering women actually entered the work place very long ago, but they started entering the work place in a more meaningful way, I think it was in 1835, but it is now 2017, and we still face gender problems in the work place.
There is the gender gap, where you get a male and female doing exactly the same job, same qualifications, same abilities, but they will be compensated differently. That continues to be an issue. I’m not sure that we are going to chip away at the problem if we don’t populate those high decision making roles with females. I think it is the females that are going to resolve the problem, because, I think men had the opportunity to do something about it, and we are still sitting where we are today.
The second challenge that women tend to face generally, is we are not authentic in who we are in the workplace. There are studies that are being conducted around the benefits of people that live in the work environment being true to who they are, and actually economic benefits of that. Typically, if you are in a work environment and you are pretending to be something you are not that takes away a lot of your energy and as result, it has a negative impact on productivity because you have to put up appearances, try to act as if you are something you are not just to fit into the work environment. It is problematic and it continues to happen
There are a lot of women who come into the work environment, and I’m confining my argument just to the work environment, because I think that is topical. Gender mainstreaming is a big thing in corporations all over the World. Women need to find their voice in the work place. I think there is a tendency to defer to the status quo and women don’t assert themselves enough. We run a danger that society is going to remain where it is if women do not stand up and take their rightful place in this corporations and shape the future of the context within these corporations operate.
3. Critics are saying not much has been done in the past 23 years by government, what has been your experience in terms of advancing the agenda of women?
Azola: We have to be careful around too much legislation, sometimes, it is probably necessary and really what government has to do. We have the Employment Equity Act, for example, making contributions by training your staff and be able to claim back from the various SETAS. Government has done a lot, but trouble with what we are seeing, is that there is a lot of noncompliance. You can legislate as much as you want to, but ultimately, if you don’t have a mechanism to monitor compliance to a specific piece of legislation, you are going to come short, because people know that there is nobody policing them for want they are doing.
What ultimately needs to happen, and what is happening in financial services in particular when it comes to gender issues, is not much. In terms of the JSE, the last stats that I saw with respect to the companies listed, it’s only 3% of those companies that actually have females represented on their boards. There’s is a lot that needs to be done.
The other perspective that I can bring into the equation is that a lot of the institutional investors in the South African market are your retirement funds, pension funds, money that you and I contribute towards our employer scheme that has been established for retirement saving purposes. It is really our money. This money is of the men in the streets, but those monies are being presided on and all the decision making that happens is in the financial management industry. Those financial management that you provide mandate to say help us grow our wealth, they have the power to engage with the investee companies that they place monies with. I think this question of gender mainstreaming can probably be tackled from many angles, firstly, is putting in place proxy voting policy, for example that these retirement funds can get their asset managers to exercise on their behalf so that they can incorporate within such policies things like, we want to see females being represented at the board levels of these companies, within management, and report on that on annual basis. That can be done. The legislation is already there, the EE, they compile a report on annual basis just to track how we are doing.
The mere fact that we are not making progress with respect to this suggests, to me that maybe our legislation is a little bit blunt, and perhaps it has to be re-looked at, reviewed, and maybe we need to sharpen it in certain areas.
What is fascinating is what happened in Rwanda post genocide, if you look at the the global gender gap report that WEF released, Rwanda is sitting at number 5 out of 144 counties that are tracked in the WEF report. The reason is that a lot of the men died because of the genocide and so the females now populate the parliament, they set policy, they run the institutions. It took a genocide to actually achieve that kind of stat, by the way of all the countries that are in the top 10, Rwanda is the only African country.
It is fascinating and problematic, the gender issue is really a big conundrum and I think that it is going to take women to stand up for other women and open up doors for other women and ensure that they pull them up the ladder.
Question 4: If you had an opportunity to speak to your younger self, what advise would you give her?
Azola: That is a difficult one for me to answer. I have always been serious and ambitious from day one. I would say to myself, pursue the things that I feel I let myself down, such as, getting a qualification to become a Chartered Accountant, because CAs are held in high esteem in the World, particularly, here in SA. I’m not sure if it is too late to obtain that kind of qualification.
Maybe advise for young people in general, there are a lot of things that have gone wrong, some are systematic. The AIDS pandemic also made a contribution, a lot of kids had to effectively raise themselves, and when kids are left to their own devices a lot can go wrong. The kind of advise to kids, that grow up who have made some mistakes, we have experienced a lot of teenage pregnancy, I think to those kids, I would say, life is long, as much as people say life is short, but life is very long. To them if they have made those mistakes, and maybe they are in their mid-20s at the moment, one has not obtained a matric, they must just go back to school and get it. There is a lot of support that is available for such. They must just get that matric. If you just passed matric and you wish you could improve your results because you want to follow a particular stream at a tertiary level, just go back and improve your results. You have a lot of time. There is a lot ahead of you. South Africa has many opportunities and South Africa actually needs its youth to be people that are going to make a real contribution to the future of this economy. Go back to school, equip yourself, this economy is alive with possibility.
People like myself who are in positions of influence, currently, are actually laying the ground work for those people to come in and plug into positions that are ultimately going to ensure that we continue to build the future of South Africa. Alcohol isn’t going to get you anywhere anytime fast. There is a time for everything in life. If they can get the foundational basis for their future, they won’t have any regrets.
Question 5: If you were to become President for one day, what would you do?
President for a day, first of all that wouldn’t be adequate time for all the things that need to happen, in South Africa, but, I would probably focus on giving an inspirational speech on how much potential we have as a country and how much a lot rests on our education system.
I think a lot of the problems that we are going to continue to have as a country is the fact that we have lowered standards when it comes to the quality of the education that we are providing to our youth. That is probably where I would focus most of my attention in getting that right and ensuring that we go back to a system that is going to produce quality students that are going to be able to get into tertiary side of things and thrive within the tertiary environment. Varsity just gives you an urge in life
Probably, what I would alter or enhance in our curricula is introducing an entrepreneurship stream, because for a developing nation such as ours, surely, we can’t be saying to kids the only thing that they ever going to be good for is jobs. We need to create a crop of kids that are going to be creators, they need to create companies, invent things that are going to occupy the world stage
Education would be very key, top of my agenda, is to change the curricula. Currently the pass rate is ridiculous,
Give an inspirational speech to try and encourage South Africans to come together as a nation. There is so much racial hatred happening in the country at the moment and the political environment doesn’t help much, we need to meet each other somewhere in order to take this country forward