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Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Former Deputy President of South Africa, Former Executive Director, UN Women, 2021 Make Equality Reality Honoree

Niki Kandirikara, Director of Programs, celebrates Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as part of Equality Now’s 30 for 30, featuring 30 women and changemakers who have played a key role in making equality reality as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations.

When I think about Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, I think of her time as Executive Director of UN Women, her work as the UN Under-Secretary-General, and, of course, her history-making tenure as the Deputy President of South Africa. But I also think of someone who is an activist, a passionate advocate, and a teacher. 

It was as a teacher that Phumzile began her career in the KwaZuluNatal region of South Africa. Her passion for cultivating young minds took her from the classroom to Geneva, Switzerland, where, as the Youth Director for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), she strove to create jobs for young people inside the UN and meaningfully engage them as actors. 

Throughout her long career, Phumzile has created space for civil society to influence the gender equality agenda, ensuring those most affected by injustice were given a platform and heard and those working at the forefront of the movement were listened to. When she became South Africa’s first female Deputy President in 2005, Phumzile brought her understanding of the intersections of race, gender, poverty, and power to bear as the country rediscovered its strengths after the ravages of apartheid. As the highest ranking woman in the history of South Africa, she sought to ensure Black people, women, young people, and those most affected by poverty and injustice would benefit in the newly emergent South African economy. As Phumzile has said, “Achieving gender equality is about disrupting the status quo, not negotiating it.” 

I’ve encountered many feminists who, like Phumzile, have a keen understanding of how race, class, gender, age, sexuality, gender identity, disability, and poverty can conspire to include or exclude, to empower or to marginalize, to enrich or to impoverish. But it was Phumzile who took this understanding to the heart of the global institution, that is the UN, enabling this knowledge to influence government policy and practices around the world. We all owe Phumzile an enormous debt of gratitude for her help opening the door for feminist thinking to lead the way forward on a global scale. 

I’ve long admired how Phumzile used her depth of knowledge and her commitment to women and girls to launch the He For She campaign, which invited men and people of all genders to stand in solidarity with women to promote gender equality. The Generation Equality Forum (GEF), which focused on the need for intergenerational dialogue and action, was a fundamental part of Phuzmile’s vision. It is clear that, as a former teacher, Phumzile understands the need for empowered, engaged youth. 

Phumzile has always enthusiastically supported Equality Now and our strategic calls for governments to live up to their international legal obligations and ensure equality for all. Through UN Women’s Equality in Law for Women and Girls by 2030: A multistakeholder strategy for accelerated action, she promoted the repeal of sex discriminatory laws in every facet of life, amplifying Equality Now’s Legal Equality agenda. Her support has helped to broaden the impact of our work and deepen our relationships with partners, both at the UN and at the regional and local levels around the world. 

It’s difficult to imagine the progress our movement has made without the valuable lessons Phumzile has taught us about the critical importance of what we all can do, collectively and individually, to make the world a better place for women and girls. 

A headshot of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

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