South African Cultural Observatory

Women move us, but find it hard to move the needle on their own progress

BY Unathi Lutshaba 29.08.23

WITH the flutter of fins, Zandile Ndhlovu disappears underwater. While it feels like she is gone, the ripples she leaves on the surface extend way beyond this dive.

Zandile is changing hearts, minds, a whole culture around swimming, and the way an entire generation of young black women see themselves and what they could be doing.

A passionate advocate for the blue economy, underwater treasures, and for the sport of free-diving, Zandile – the self-dubbed “Black Mermaid” – is becoming an international cultural phenomenon and ambassador.

South Africa’s first black female freediving instructor is on a mission to change long-held attitudes and teach young people – women especially – to feel at home in the sea. She is also the subject of an exciting short documentary, The Black Mermaid, released late last year on free streaming channel WaterBear.

According to the NSRI, just 15% of South Africans can swim – most of them white people. While each year in our country, approximately 1,500 people drown, 30% of them under the age of 14. These drownings are completely preventable, with the right education and training  and start with a fundamental respect and understanding of water.

It's Women’s Month and I am fascinated at this story of how sport, race, gender and culture merge with social impact and the blue and orange (creative) economies in a way that has the potential to impact lives and society. 

Zandile is one example of women pushing new boundaries across industries while making a difference.

Another port of call

Black women are so rarely at the helm or in top or influential positions it is considered major news. An example, again from the blue economy, is the case of Lieutenant Commander Zimasa Mabela, who in 2015 became the first African woman ever to take command the SAS Umhloti, a South African Navy Mine Counter Measure Vessel.

Despite many capable women operating at all levels of society and all our laws and policies, women are still systematically excluded.

In South Africa, StatsSA’s 2022 figures showed that only close to half of women of working age participated in the labour force compared with men, where participation is at 64%. 

Despite the fact that, as UN Women argues, investing in women's economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth, women are still undervalued and underrepresented. How?

This situation is untenable as we seek to power new industries, like our creative, oceans, digital and green economies with talent and new perspectives (especailly those of women).  And as we look to change the status quo in the face of snowballing climate and economic crises.

Something’s got to give  starting with a fundamental cultural and policy shift.

For that we need more Zandile’s and Zimasa’s to be the exemplars of what is possible for all women, but especially women of colour.

We need all types of women to continue moving us, while also moving the industry needle in favour of more senior women and women in leadership.

History does not equal pathway dependency

South Africa’s rich history and heritage of resistance is underpinned by the tireless work of many unnamed women across communities and rural areas. We remember the names that have been etched in history: Lilian Ngoyi, Winnie Mandela, Rahima Moosa, Ruth First, Saartjie Baartman.

But what of those many thousands of hands that stood on the lines of protest, who raised children, tended wounds, hid those on the run, lobbied, educated?

August 9, annual Women’s Day in South Africa, commemorates annually the historic achievements of women stalwarts in the struggles against oppression, subjugation and disenfranchisement; as well as the pursuit of women’s empowerment, advancement and the achievement of gender equality. 

While our history does recognise and elevate South African women, this has done little to change the reality on the ground.

Our incredible pro-gender equity policies in South Africa and our commendable parity in government leadership is the bedrock off which to drive change, but for true economic empowerment, the theme of this year’s Women’s Month, a step-change is needed.

Representation matters here and the cultural and creative industries can play a major role in elevating women’s representation. From making films about successful women like Zandile to telling stories like those of Zimasa.

But representation also needs to convert into investment, capital, credit and capacity.

According to some estimates unmet demand for credit among women totals $1.7 trillion. This gap means many women with great ideas for innovation, businesses or initiatives simply don’t get the funding they need to start, grow or scale.

In Africa, only 3% of early-stage funding goes to companies with all female founders. These stark facts point to the reality that half of the world is not enabled with opportunity – capital or capacity – to drive economic development.

This alone should make policy-makers wake up and pay attention.

A shift is happening

I reiterate that representation matters. In my own sector, the cultural and sport economy, which crosses over with the blue economy, we see representation of women growing.  

For example, it’s been the season for women in sport. The FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Netball World Cup. Women playing world class rugby or cricket. It’s a powerful moment to see your avatars on fields normally dominated by men.

By any stretch, the live broadcast of women’s sport is a major coup for us all, but mainly for 50% of the global population who’ve been historically and systematically excluded from this type of exposure.

They say it’s because the money doesn’t follow. But there’s no way to know without the A/B test we are now conducting to – finally – showcase women at their peak.

Similarly, in July/August, early box office results showed the film, Barbie, had made revenues of $1-billion plus. The box office numbers trump the economy argument that only action films can gross such numbers.

The buying power is there – for everything from consumer and cultural goods to sports, to tourism. And it’s high time we stopped ignoring the power – commercial and societal – of women and started recognizing and elevating it.

The sport and cultural economies have a big role to play in doing so.

As we look back at Women’s Month in South Africa, the way we accelerate socio-economic opportunities for women’s empowerment will happen in three ways, underpinned by a culture of real change and commitment to women: policy, representation, and capital.

This can happen across all industries, but especially big turn-key ones where new opportunities to break the mould, and new urgencies, lie. These include the creative industries or orange economy, the blue economy, technology and innovation, and in scaling MSMEs.

Let’s rethink how we empower and support women. Let’s open our hearts and the economy to more women and help us move the needle so we are all participating on a level playing field – and build a creative, moving Mzansi together. 

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