Ayanda Mafuleka is giving 1,000 women the opportunity of a lifetime.

One day in 1996, Ayanda Mafuleka looked up from her school desk and saw division. At the rear of the classroom, sat the boys; at the front, the girls. “We were in the same class,” she recalls. “But we could not engage with each other in the classroom. I could understand the separate sitting arrangement in church. But in the classroom, where we are supposed to derive learnings from one another, even in the absence of the teacher in class, we were not allowed to engage. I found it bizarre.”

The 16-year-old Mafuleka thought speaking out “might get me in trouble”, but she felt the fear and did it anyway. The school heard her, abolished the no-mixing rule in the classroom – and made her head girl the following year. It proved an early milestone in a life devoted to leading change and confronting discord. 

It is a wonder that Mafuleka, now chief executive officer of Financial Accounting Services Seta (Fasset) – one of South Africa’s Sector Education and Training Authorities – attended the school at all. She was born when her mother was just 19, and her father 21. Largely because of her parents’ youth, she was brought up by her maternal grandmother. “My grandmother was not learned,” Mafuleka recalls. Yet although illiterate, her mother’s mother was wise, and thoughtful. She asked her granddaughter to read to her every day from the Bible and, by Mafuleka’s early childhood, the girl from the Umlazi township was fully literate, an early reader with academic promise. Her grandmother was a gifted seamstress, fashioning and selling dresses. But accounts were beyond her. Mafuleka stepped up. “I became her informal bookkeeper and debt collector,” she says, “so that her customers would never see that she couldn’t read and write.” Mafuleka’s youthful literacy became precocious numeracy. The autodidactic child was to become a self-made woman. 

Mama Maureen

At 14, Mafuleka went to live with her other grandmother, on her father’s side. “By then my maternal grandmother was elderly and could not afford taking me to a better school, she said: ‘I’m old now. This is a girl growing up in a township. Things are tough. She’s a teenager and it’s going to be hard to protect her in this environment. I want to hand her over to you now.’” Her paternal grandmother, herself an educated woman and a professional nurse, enrolled Mafuleka into a Catholic boarding school. “That was the best decision she ever made,” Mafuleka says. “That is where I learned to be independent.” 

The head-girl-to-be blossomed and excelled. She was fascinated by law but, self-conscious of her slight speech impediment (she has a mild stutter), wanted to avoid a profession that required frequent public speaking. “I did not follow my passion!” she reveals. “The only question that I asked myself was, ‘What is the career in which I will not need to speak?’ I knew that lawyers had to speak often.’” Her early forays into bookkeeping, her youthful budgeting, gave her an out. “I came across a book about accountancy,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Wow. This is what I want to do, because I know that I won’t be doing much public speaking.’”

So good were her high school results that Mafuleka won a bursary via the Eden Trust from the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants to pursue the discipline at college. Her path looked set: she would study for three years, qualify, and become one of the few township girls to overcome poverty and prejudice to become a professional in apartheid South Africa. “I would read business magazines where they would occasionally profile young ladies who looked like me and had qualified as chartered accountants. I aspired to be like them,” she says. But there was a twist coming. Life – and love – got in the way. 

“In my third year I fell pregnant,” she reveals. Impending motherhood changed her outlook, as it often does, and her grades suffered. “I was supposed to graduate that year,” she recalls. “But the results came in and the results were not good. I was scared to even send my results to my final-year sponsor, Transnet (the South African transport infrastructure authority).” Mafuleka passed just a handful of modules. She would have to sit an extra year, with a newborn to care for, to have a chance of graduating. She feared the worst: “I was just waiting for a letter from Transnet telling me that they were going to cut my funding.”

But the letter never came. Instead, one day, the phone rang. “A lady we called ‘Mama Maureen’ from Transnet called and she said: ‘What happened?’ And I just broke down. I burst into tears. I told her that I was heavily pregnant. And she said: ‘I thought something must have happened to you. So now I know what it was, I will come back to you.’ And she did come back to me. And when she did, she said: ‘Once you’ve given birth, come back to campus, because we are going to continue to fund you.’”

It was another huge turning point in Mafuleka’s life. Someone had backed her: showed faith in her when the chips were down. “From that moment, I never looked back,” she says. “This lady had given me a second chance.” Mafuleka graduated, joined Transnet, and embarked on a wonderful career. Via stints at big-budget public bodies in finance, mining, and transportation, she rose to the top of a profession in a nation that “has very few black female chartered accountants.” Did her ‘Maureen Moment’ change her worldview? “Oh yes,” she says. “I knew then that I would pass that good deed forward. It gave me a fresh outlook in life.”

Empowering women

An important outcome of that outlook is Fasset’s ground-breaking partnership with the International Women’s Forum South Africa (IWFSA): #1,000 Women. Backed by investment of about US$13 million, the program aims to train and empower 1,000 women leaders at executive and middle-management levels. Fasset hands the women an opportunity to develop their leadership skills and confidence and prepare them to accept leadership roles in all sectors, locally and globally. The program comprises excellently curated and tailored academic modules. The mission to create a pool of 1,000 women ethical leaders looks set to be achieved within just three years – starting in 2022 and culminating in 2025. It will be a remarkable achievement. #1,000 Women is a tangible means to make a meaningful and long-lasting impact on women lives, families, communities, and places of work. “You empower a woman; you empower a nation!” Mafuleka says. 

The framework is built on the combination of one-to-one and group mentorship. The women are mentored by prominent members of the IWFSA, and have access to global IWF mentors, such as those from IWF UK. For its first cohort in 2022, the programme scored an 80% attendance rate and an average 8.8 out of 10 participant rating. What is the secret to its success? “The unmatched commitment of the IWFSA, Duke CE and the participants!” says Mafuleka. “Notwithstanding the fact that these women are very hungry for personal and career growth. The delivery partners are led by women, who are intentional and deliberate around issues of women empowerment and gender equality – just like Fasset.” 

The program has recently surpassed 500 participants, the 1,000 target in sight. “That decision that Maureen made, to call me, will now change not just my life but those of 1,000 other women,” Mafuleka tells Dialogue. “She enabled me to rise above the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, to thrive, to get to where I am, so that I was able to reach and change the lives of other women. I am paying it forward.” 

Mafuleka is now in South Africa’s financial elite. She has overcome every barrier placed in her way: a township upbringing in a racist state; a speech impediment that led her to deliberately avoid public speaking; a youthful pregnancy amid her college finals. To what extent do those barriers – prejudice, disability, childbearing – persist as barriers to female advancement? 

She rejects the notion that motherhood should ever be a hurdle. “We should need to be neither sympathetic nor apologetic about childbearing, because childbearing should never impede, hamper or interfere with our careers,” she says. “Childbearing is a uniqueness that we women have been blessed with. My unplanned pregnancy ended up serving as a source of self-motivation. I was determined to overcome difficult circumstances to pursue my career aspirations.”

Building opportunities

Dialogue attended IWFSA’s exclusive gala dinner in London in the winter. The energy in the room was palpable. It was the chromatic opposite of typical London formal dinners, with their excess of dark suits punctuated by the occasional splash of colour. It was a kaleidoscopic scene that felt more like a festival than a black-tie event. Women laughed, danced – even burst into impromptu song. We few dark suits were joyfully carried along for the ride.  

Does Mafuleka feel such opportunities to build strong female networks are too rare? There is warm laughter. “I want to put that question back to you, as a male, put you on the spot,” she says. “Do you play golf?” she asks. “Do you go to the pub with your business associates?” I tell her that I am a poor golfer, so avoid the former. But I admit to the latter. “Well, when you go to the pub, that is your way of networking, because business is about who you know. There is value in networks. Yet for women it can be difficult: many of us don’t visit pubs or play golf. And the golf course is where deals are made. That is why we are building opportunities for these 1,000 young ladies to build their own networks – because your network is your net worth. That London dinner will have been a life-changing experience for many of them, to meet all those powerful and accomplished women. From that night, they established lifetime networks.”

Fostering those networks, creating conduits by which women become upwardly mobile, is crucial in a nation where female talent still too often languishes in the lower end of organizations. 

When, in 2020, Fasset examined the South African financial sector, it discovered that women occupied 75% of positions at clerical level. “This highlighted the slow progression in the sector,” says Mafuleka. The findings prompted Fasset to refocus on the industry through a transformative lens. That fresh focus gave birth to the Women Leadership Development Programme. The #1,000 Women partnership with IWFSA, which is delivered by Duke Corporate Education, promises to smash the glass ceiling across sectors. “We must create a pipeline of women leaders,” says Mafuleka, “so women can move up from that administrative level, through middle management, and then to the executive level. In the South African financial sector, we even now still have only one black female heading a commercial bank, Ms Mary Vilakazi, appointed in 2022. But it’s not about race, it’s about women, and women of all races are underrepresented in the C-suite and boardrooms.”

Is she optimistic that rapid change will come? “The program has already been life-changing,” she says. “We are creating a pipeline of women who are going to be ethical leaders, courageous leaders, pathfinders, trailblazers, legacy creators, who will reinvest in other women and pay it forward. They will be women who will lift as they rise.” 

The program is already having a clear impact. Mafuleka says. “There are countless inspiring stories from these women: some have been promoted, regained confidence and purpose, found healing and liberation.’’ They will, she predicts, rise to the top. “We have created a women leadership movement,” she says. 

When Mama Maureen gave Mafuleka that second chance all those years ago, she probably had no idea what she had started. “I am sure of that,” says Mafuleka, “The program has produced the deputy governor of the South African central bank,” she says, “and I firmly believe that the first black female governor of our central bank is going to come from the alumni.”

A thousand seeds are being planted. The nation of South Africa itself will reap the rewards. “It recalls the words of the former president of Burkina Faso, President Thomas Sankara,” says Mafuleka. “‘There is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence.’

“The roars of the 1,000 women leaders shall be heard!”