Power Plays in Stilettos

Sometimes you have to cancel personal plans at the eleventh hour and your family just has to understand. I cannot express this hurt but I believe it is part of the struggle. – HE Nonhle Mkhulisi, Mayor of King Cetshwayo District Municipality

We were fortunate enough to sit down for an interview with the King Cesthwayo District Municipalities Mayor, Her Excellency Nomfundo Ntombenhle Penelope Mkhulisi. Our August edition of Khulisa Magazine is many things; it’s the debut issue, it’s also the women’s month issue therefore it was especially important to
connect with leading women who lead exemplary lives, impacting society at large.

Our interview session allowed us to delve into the world of a power woman and learn a little more about the challenges and experiences she faces. Our question and answer session was held in the auspices of her Mayoral office, where we met and treated by her caring staffers – also empowered professional ladies who
inspired us. Nondumo Sithole conducted the interview with the Mayor for our organization.

NS Who is Nonhle Mkhulisi?
NM I am Nomfundo Ntombenhle Penelope Mkhulisi, I was born in Pietermaritzburg, in an area called S’nathingi. I grew up, however, with my aunt in Mfanefile, Melmoth, in northern KwaZulu Natal. I am a rural girl, raised by my aunt who is no longer with us. I am a mother to Simphiwe and a grandmother. I was trained as a foundation phase teacher, and was promoted to Deputy Principal and then Principal a year later. I was a Principal for 12 years, and have been a part of the struggle since.

NS Please share with us how your journey has been, and maybe your most important childhood memory.
NM My rural background created a love for people and more especially teaching young people. My mother was grounded in community development and I think that stayed with more all this time. One of my most vivid childhood experiences was cooking at home in large pots because community members would file in and out, due to my mothers work. So, from that young age, I was always involved with the community, working with all types of people from the grass-roots all the way up. Even to this day, when I visit home I interact and engage with the community there who always stop by to interact with me. My journey has been one of great responsibilities and challenges being bestowed upon me, and working tirelessly with strong teams in pursuit of excellence.

I have worked extensively in rural areas, and this has reinforced my passion for people and their individual
issues, and I believe I have a better understanding of grass -root individuals. I was very humbled to be elected Mayor of the district and Chairperson of the region. You have to understand that coming in under the circumstances under which I did was not easy, due to the passing of our comrade Thulani Mashaba. It has been quite a journey.

You have to understand how important this is, given the background: there are only two chairpersons of the ANC of the eleven regions in KZN and above that I am the first female chairperson in this district – that is historical. I serve the nation, organization, community through humility because I draw strength from understanding where we as women come from. My energy is revived always and I must ensure that as a woman I put matters that affect women to the front and create a better life for other women in the district.

To the women and young ladies reading this, I wish you all well in your endeavours, no matter your
circumstance. What defined the struggle of 1956 struggle is not what defines the struggle of the day. Today we suffer from unemployment, inequality and poverty. How do we participate and create solutions to these issues? Be ready to participate in the RET. Opportunities are there for you. Focus, and focus and focus, after focus. The struggle continues, and it is our duty to liberate other women. Amandla!

NS Take us through a typical day when you are not at work.
NM I am a simple person, I am a single mother without a complicated or, sophisticated life, rather. I spend most of my time at home in Mfanefile, cooking and bonding with my family and neighbours. I interact largely with the community from this humble area, who make sure to stop by whenever they see my vehicle at home. I just want to be where people are, especially those that are underprivileged and disadvantaged. It helps me understand how better to carry out my duties and what works best.

NS The Business Women’s Association awarded you first prize in the public sector category. Please tell us more about that.
NM I was told by BWA that this year they had introduced a new category to their awards, the public sector award. When I was informed of my nomination, my team was very excited and began collecting and submitting supporting information. I work with a great management team and at all levels our interactions are always great – this encourages me to do better.

 What challenges have you encountered, and are any of them related to you being a female in this position, and how do you overcome them?Even when I didn’t believe that I belonged at this ceremony, my team encouraged me by reminding me the value and importance of our work in the community, and of sharing it to enlighten and inspire others to do the same. I enjoy working with my team, they are always very supportive. You have to understand that this region is roughly eighty-percent rural: and most of these are women. The most vulnerable and suffering. My focus is on them, coordinating with other departments to create opportunities for them.

NM You have to understand that I am the chairperson of the region and the political head of government in the district. There must be a political balance here, on the one hand I must carry the mandate of my organization of improving the lives of many through the implementation of organizational policies and at the same time I must align with government priorities.

Male counterparts are a big challenge, especially in the beginning. It is a struggle, the only way to be recognized as an equal is to have achievements under your belt. Coming into an organization as the new leader, you must have a personal strategy so that people understand you and your vision, and then work better with you in achieving it. While there are always challenges, I have come to believe that
everything in life teaches you strength. Some characters have strengthened me. The one thing you need to
understand about women is that we grow from challenges.

All of us must share one vision which is influenced by unity, as the president stated in his Women’s Day address. I lead with principles and a vision. It is important to know and understand your vision. Mine, is to build a society that is non-racial and democratic – one where all who live in the land prosper from it.
Economic transformation is the most important focus for us right now, as an organization. How do we realize new opportunities for our district? Programmes that are for the benefit of our citizens, and especially women.

Collaborating with stakeholders to expose young people to new industries and opportunities, giving direction to the youth on how to access the economy and prosper from it. There are many challenges facing us as leaders, but more important are the challenges facing the district and the people, and our principle task is creating a better life for all of them. The desalination plant in Richards Bay is operational and
provides quality drinking water to communities nearby, our procurement policies have improved to ring-fence opportunities for women and youth – such as the Fresh Produce Market. And above all, we must be able to measure our performance and progress.

NS What does your future look like?
NM I do not see my future just here. All I’ll say is that I am here for now and that is where my focus is. I left the education department in 2009 to join parliament. I went to the legislature for one year, and now I am in local government. I am a servant of the organization that has elected me, and I am deployed by my organization where they feel my abilities are most needed. So my future is about whether I am a visionary leader? Am I disciplined and trustworthy?

I am grateful for the trust they continue to place in me. My immediate future is focused on aligning with the State of the Nation Address that puts forward the realization of radical economic transformation. We will be hosting the inaugural district women’s empowerment summit at the end of August, bringing in many stakeholders from different arms of government at multiple levels to share information about opportunities for women and especially youth in the district.

The one thing you need to understand about women is that we grow from challenges.

NS If you will indulge us a little, about your family life. Differing opinions argue that it is rather offensive to ask you as a woman this question, when male counterparts aren’t. However, I believe there is something of importance in sharing what works for you personally which may help another person with similar circumstances develop a working model for their own personal journey.
NM Yes indeed that is difficult question. It speaks of gender imbalances and power relations. The question
instantly identifies me as a woman, however I am not offended. I grew up within the struggles of women. I have led gender forums in SADTU and COSATU. I understand these concepts quite well. I’ll say this, it is not easy to balance. You have to be able to balance life, you often focus more on the work-side because of the pressures. It eats greatly into your time and space for family.

My son once shared with me that “when mom is at home, she is still on the phone talking about work. She loves the work more than she loves me.” And because I am a single parent with demanding commitments and travelling, it is even harder to have a partner. You must have passion, it’s the only thing that boosts your commitment.

Your family suffers the most, and I will agree that in that regard I am guilty-as-charged. You notice weaknesses in the home, and realize that it is because of the lack of time you spend at home. My son stays with my sister. The only way we get to spend time is when we go on vacation, so it is important to plan and honour those moments – and when they are there, to treasure them.

Sometimes you have to cancel personal plans at the eleventh hour and your family just has to understand. I cannot express this hurt but I believe it is part of the struggle.

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