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Engaging Africa’s female authors for lessons in leadership

Engaging Africa’s female authors for lessons in leadership

Much can be learned from literature – both fiction and non-fiction – about the experiences of women in the varied contexts in which they live. The ways in which women exist in society, the manner in which they navigate the societal rules and norms that affect their very being, and the ways in which their interactions with others (across genders) play out, all provide important clues and insights about how society values and devalues women.

When these varied aspects play out on the pages of the literature of authors of diverse backgrounds, the potential learnings about the society within which we live are endless. Indeed, as Carl Sagan once opined, “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”

Applying this view to the topic of women in leadership, specifically in the African context, there is no doubt that the continent’s literary heads can teach us a great deal about women’s experience of and with leadership, the power dynamics that exist within societies – taking into consideration the various intersectionalities that exist in terms of race, class, culture, etc. – the realities we all face, and the potential for positive change. However, not enough has been explored about the lessons in leadership that emanate from the literature of Africa’s female writers – particularly in terms of their engagements with leaders and their experiences as leaders.

The Old Mutual Women’s Network seeks to change this through a new initiative – the OWN Book Club Fireside Chat – recently launched to create platforms to engage with and gain insights from Africa’s female literary minds.

Old Mutual has long been a proponent of diversity in the workplace and has engaged in a variety of activities across the group to empower women in the workplace, to recognise their achievements, and to engage in a way that promotes growth, safe spaces and provides inspiration.

The Fireside Chats aim to ignite stimulating conversations on women-authored African literature and – given OWN’s objective to promote women’s empowerment across Old Mutual’s Africa footprint – to engage in the subject matter in a way that inspires excellence and personal development.

Old Mutual recognizes that engagements on the topic of women in leadership are complex and that the themes to be explored in our engagements with authors on this platform potentially cover several fields of study. Many scholarly articles highlight that even from a definitional point of view, ‘it can be unclear what, precisely, we mean when we employ terms such as “women’s leadership”, “African feminism”, “feminist leadership”, “intersectional approach”, “leadership”, and “African contexts”.

The relationship between such terms can also be unclear, as can the implications of how we apply them to how we advance thinking and dialogue on the topic. The risk is that failing to clearly define key concepts it may result in “dubious implications for feminist scholarship and activism.”’ (Poltera, 20201) They go on to note that this “speaks to the need for ongoing dialogue and debate about key terms and concepts employed in theorising women’s leadership in African contexts.”

While recognizing the importance of the theoretical dimensions of engaging on this topic, the Fireside Chats, through conversation with selected authors, will specifically seek to understand the practical meaning of the insights drawn from their literature. Moreover, the chats will push authors to convey what lessons can be drawn for current and emerging leaders, as we seek to promote workplaces that value men and women equally, and allow them to thrive without any form of discrimination.

The inaugural Fireside Chat on Friday, 10 September 2021 did just that!

Engaging renowned world-renowned journalist and editor, Gwen Lister, Old Mutual Manager for Communications and Social Responsibility, Mauriza Fredericks, helped to draw lessons in leadership from Gwen’s recently published memoir, Comrade Editor: On life, journalism and the birth of Namibia. Comrade Editor tells the story of Gwen’s life, her journey and the incredible obstacles she overcame to speak truth to power, challenge authority, fight for justice, establish The Namibian newspaper, and impact the country’s historical and current narrative.

“This is the story of ‘finding myself’ as a woman in a world that, as much as I tried to change it, altered me too; the realization that the journey has been about conquering fears and weaknesses, and about trying to be strong. I was never hesitant about pitting myself against military or state power. Instead, my failings were about avoiding vulnerabilities in the course of individual bonds and kinships, and about seeking safety in causes rather than in dealing with rocky relationships at home.” Gwen Lister in Comrade Editor

During their inspiring fireside chat, Fredericks and Lister unpacked issues around effective and impactful leadership during times of crisis, shone a light on women leading, and explored what it takes to lead with courage, conviction and integrity. Importantly, they also highlighted important lessons for women facing challenges in their positions of leadership and highlighted the potential of women leading. In this regard, Lister noted “Being leaders of (social) conscience allows women to do more for their communities. We mustn’t be bitter towards others, we must be more tolerant of people regardless of race, colour, ethnicity, gender, etc. We can strive towards those ideals if Namibia is going to be a successful and inclusive society that says whatever the past, you do belong.”

The inaugural Fireside Chat, which has thus far drawn an audience of over 2,000 views across the platforms engaged, highlighted the need for new ways to engage on leadership in general, and women’s leadership in particular. Old Mutual aims to hold a Fireside Chat biannually, with the second offering slated for February 2022.

Among others, my life’s journey has affirmed my youthful belief that we can all make a difference if we choose to do so, and that this is the path to happiness. In my case, this has been a life in journalism, in the service of the people. I’ve also learnt that no matter our race, colour or gender, we face the common challenge of overcoming our inherent flaws and learning to be kind to the planet and to one another. Our only difference lies in whether or not we choose to do so.” Gwen Lister in Comrade Editor

The full conversation with Gwen Lister can be viewed on Old Mutual Namibia’s YouTube channel, at this link:

Mauriza Fredericks, Manager: Communications and Social Responsibility, Old Mutual with Gwen Lister (right), author, publisher and investigative journalist.

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