The Power of Inevitability

“Firsts matter because they signal the arc of the moral universe slowly bending towards justice.”

–  Basani Maluleke

 

“You may be the first to do many things,
but make sure you are not the last.”

– Kamala Harris

 

South Africa has had 21 Auditors-General since the role was first created in 1911. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority – 17, to be exact – have cut a very predictable figure: white, upper class, middle-aged men, creating an almost 90-year-long monopoly which only ended with the appointment of Shauket Fakie in 1999.

Even then, it would be another 21 years before South Africa would welcome its first woman Auditor-General, the brilliant and talented Tsakani Maluleke.

And not a moment too soon.

The Performance Agency has had the privilege of working closely with the Office of the Auditor-General, and with the last three incumbents in particular, on a number of strategic projects. All have proven dynamic, impactful leaders who not only shifted the needle internally but whose integrity and leadership boosted public confidence in this critical office’s oversight and accountability functions. At a time when many other Chapter 9 institutions were failing us, the AGSA has proven worthy of public trust.

And yet, watching Tsakani Maluleke stride purposefully down the red carpet which had been laid down in her honour on her first day in office, was especially gratifying.

It is easy, given the many significant milestones of transformation that we have witnessed over the past three decades, to under-appreciate the magnitude of this moment.

Or to wonder, why still celebrate “first woman”-type appointments, when capable, talented women leaders already permeate every layer of our social, political and economic strata?

Does it really still matter? Should we still care?

Yes, and absolutely.

Tsakani Maluleke’s appointment as South Africa’s first woman Auditor-General, after almost a century of male predecessors, matters. It matters for the same reason Mary Malahlele-Xakana’s graduation as the first black South African woman doctor, mattered.

And Gladys Steyn’s appointment as South Africa’s first woman advocate mattered.

And Miriam Makeba, the first African woman to win a Grammy; and Cathy O’Dowd, the first woman to climb both sides of Mount Everest; and Nosipho Siwisa-Damasane, South Africa’s first woman port manager;
and Ofentse Pitse, the first black woman to conduct her own orchestra. And, of course, Tsakani Maluleke’s sister, Basani, first black woman CEO of a South African commercial bank.

These trailblazing firsts mattered when they occurred, and they matter still, not only because they marked important moments of change and transition, but because they single-handedly upended our understanding of what was not only possible but ultimately inevitable.

The theory of inevitability, though usually applied to technological progress, suggests that once an artificial barrier is broken, it is never re-assembled. More importantly, it is never again viewed as impenetrable.

As Daniel Chandler has argued, the moment new technology is introduced into a culture, it kickstarts an inevitable momentum of development.

 

Technology doesn’t stand still, and it doesn’t retreat.
It moves, and it only moves forward.

 

When social constructs like gender barriers are breached, it kickstarts a similar momentum of inevitable, perpetual transformation that only moves forward. Never again are those barriers deemed impenetrable.

In 1947, Mary Malahlele-Xakana broke the mould of what a South African doctor looked like. Up to that point, doctors were male or white. Mostly male AND white. By qualifying as a doctor when there were no other black women doctors in the country, she proved that it was possible. But she also started a process by which an entire generation of black women doctors became inevitable.

The mould had been broken. Transformation would move us forward.

By 1966, 1 in 10 new doctors were women.
By 1980, it was 1 in 5.
In 1998, it was 1 in 2.
Just two years later, in 2000, there were officially more women MB ChB graduates than men, for the first time in history. And by 2015, fully two-thirds of new doctors graduating from South Africa’s top four medical schools were women.

 

Recently, Basani Maluleke – who herself has broken long-held barriers, not least when she appeared on the cover of Forbes Africa as “one of the bankers who are shaping how banking will look in the next five years” – penned a powerful insight piece reflecting on the impact and magnitude of her sister’s appointment.

“Markers of change are important,” she wrote. “They make us more hopeful as we realise we are all capable of change. ‘Firsts’ matter because they send a message that everyone’s dreams are valid. They also signal the arc of the moral universe slowly bending towards justice.”

When Tsakani Maluleke ascended to the role of Deputy Auditor-General on 1 December 2013, she did so without a trailblazer in whose footsteps to follow. A 100-year-old script had, up to that moment, excluded her and everyone else who looked like her.

But like so many other pioneering firsts, she knew that glass ceilings are, by their very nature, temporary. And while the arc of change bends slowly, it does bend. Inevitably. Glass ceilings just require one determined woman to keep tapping, tapping, tapping, until a thousand cracks finally become a gaping hole.

Mary Malahlele-Xakana was the first black woman doctor, but not the last.

Basani Maluleke will not be the last black woman CEO of a commercial bank.

Tsakani Maluleke will not be the last woman Auditor-General of South Africa.

That said, glass ceilings have persisted in our society for far too long because women have allowed themselves – and continue to allow themselves – to be defined by gender norms. Because when all is said and done, the hardest ceiling of them all is not in banking, or finance, or tech. It is not external at all.

Rather, the tallest, most impenetrable of ceilings are the ones we create ourselves, by buying into the idea that we are inherently limited by some aspect of our identity, be it gender, age or race.

In the words of Thokozile Lewanika Mpupuni, Absa’s Group Head of Leadership, Learning and Talent:

 

This resonates very powerfully with me. The product of a performance environment, my own formative years were spent in the high-octane, tunnel-vision arenas of professional boxing and horseracing, where the goals were stunningly simple and eloquently absolute: winning.

Two fighters step into the ring in a focused battle of skill, stamina, power and strategy; the jockey mounts his horse with the clear objective of crossing the finish line ahead of all other competitors. No second-place strategy; no strategic surrender; no appeasement.

What this environment has taught me, above all else, is that there can be no asterisk to accomplishment: – not bad … * for a woman – that tries to mitigate failure, and no socially-constructed ceilings that justify under-performance.

To succeed in the ring, you had to out-perform the competition. There were no caveats or special dispensations. You, and you alone, had to ward off the body blows. If your opponent was fast, you needed to be faster. If they were strong, you needed to be stronger. Or, if you had an insurmountable physical disadvantage, you needed to be smarter, more agile or more strategic.

It is true for boxing, and it is true for business.

As Basani Maluleke knows first-hand, merely getting a seat at the table is not enough.

“Our institutions are generally not set up to warmly embrace female leadership, particularly young black female leadership,” she wrote. “The structural issues that exist to prevent many women from reaching their goals remain … firmly in place. This requires women not only to excel, thus creating room for more women at the top, but also to become adept at changing stereotypes.”

Representation matters. Firsts, as markers of change, matter. But performance matters more.

Yours in performance,
Natalie

 

January 25, 2021

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