South Africa has many reasons to celebrate the multitude of iconic figures that have made an impact on the international stage – in this article we take a look at 3 women who have resonated across the globe.

Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was born in Durban in 1955 and studied at the National University of Lesotho. After completing her degree in Social Science and Education, she taught for several years at Ohlange High School.

In 1994 Mlambo-Ngcuka became a member of the first democratically elected parliament and chairwoman of the Public Service Portfolio Committee. She then became Deputy Minister of the Department of Trade and Industry in 1996. After holding this position for three years, she became Minister of Minerals and Energy from 1999 to 2005.

Mlambo-Ngcuka became the highest-ranking women in South African history when she was appointed Deputy President of South Africa in June 2005. After then-president Thabo Mbeki left office, she focused on her studies and interests.

In 2008, Mlambo-Ngcuka established the Umlambo Foundation, which provides support to impoverished schools, by offering mentorship and training to teachers.She enrolled and completed a PhD in education and technology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of the Western Cape.

On 10 July 2013, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, following consultation with member states, announced the appointment of Mlambo-Ngcuka as Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, responsible for the advancement of the gender equality and women’ s empowerment agenda. With her experience in the political arena, she has extensive knowledge and experience of socioeconomic policies. Mlambo-Ngcuka is an advocate for human rights and is passionate about creating a world where racism, sexism and homophobia no longer exist.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was born in Natal in 1949. After matriculating, she went on to study at the University of Zululand, where she obtained a degree in zoology and botany. She then studied medicine at the University of Natal. During her studies, Dlamini-Zuma became an underground member of the ANC. She left the country as an exile and completed her medical studies at the University of Bristol. Returning to southern Africa, she worked as a doctor at a government hospital in Swaziland.

Dlamini-Zuma became Minister of Health, under the presidency of Nelson Mandela; as Minister of Foreign Affairs under Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe’s cabinet from 1999 to 2009; and Minister of Home Affairs in Jacob Zuma’s cabinet from 2009 to the end of 2012.

In 2012 Dlamini-Zuma became Chairperson of the African Union Commission, taking over from Jean Ping – the first time this position has been held by a woman. One of her main initiatives has been Agenda 2013 – a global strategy to optimise use of Africa’s resources for the benefit of all Africans.

“Working towards the emancipation of women is not an act of charity, but an imperative for any nation if it has to develop to its full potential. Women must play a central role in sustainable development. Advancing and creating leadership opportunities for women is at all levels and within our various sectors of society is critical” – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma 

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932 and was one of the first musicians to bring South African music to international stages. She started her career singing for the Cuban Brothers, but only really achieved recognition when she began to perform with the Manhattan Brothers in 1954 and toured South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Congo with them for three years.

Her appearances in two films: the first all African jazz movie King Kong (1956) and Come Back Africa (1959) consolidated Makeba’s status in the music industry locally and internationally; in 1964 she married her King Kong co-star Hugh Masekela. Her powerful calls for the end to apartheid resulted in her music being banned in South Africa and more than three decades of exile after testifying against apartheid at the UN in 1963.
Come Back Africa had attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte who helped her settle in the United States.

She used her fame to raise awareness about the injustices that were occurring in South Africa. During this time, many countries extended passports to her and she effectively became a citizen of the world, with nine passports, and citizenship in 10 countries.

As a multilinguist she sang in many languages including English, Swahili, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Spanish and collaborated on a number of albums with Harry Belafonte. Some of her most famous songs include: Phatha Phatha, Mbombela, Malalaika and Qongqothwane (The Click Song).

Makeba only returned home once Nelson Mandela was released from prison. After her return to South Africa, she worked closely with many initiatives and organisations that were close to her heart. She was nominated as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, using this position to bring awareness to other prevalent issues in Africa, such as women suffering from trauma after rape.

“Girls are the future mothers of our society, and it is important that we focus on their well-being” – Miriam Makeba

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