South African envoy Phumelele Gwala part of tide of women in government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:14am

South Africa's consul general in Hong Kong never thought of being a diplomat, not even when she turned 50 a few years ago.

For 18 years, education was Phumelele Gwala's forte, having spent three years as a secondary teacher in KwaZulu-Natal province and the next 15 years training teachers.

As the eldest of eight children, Gwala says her family life was good preparation for learning the skills of mediation and conflict resolution needed for her move into international relations.

"I'm not a career diplomat as I come from outside foreign affairs. But the role of consul general is just about people, how you relate to people," Gwala, 54, said.

"And coming from the type of family I come from, I do have strong qualities like being a leader because I was the eldest. People management, that's not a problem for me."

Gwala left home for boarding school when she was 11. "That made me develop survival and adapting skills and it also gave me confidence to engage with people," she said.

In 1999, her career trajectory shifted after the teacher training college where she worked closed, leading her to move into development and then diplomacy. After a six-month diplomatic training course in Pretoria, Gwala took up her role in Hong Kong in March.

Her husband and three daughters stayed in South Africa, but it is a sacrifice she readily accepts.

"South Africa is moving in the right direction since 1994 when we got the new, democratically elected government," she said. "We've seen women rise in all tiers of government - national, provincial, local - and we've got a high percentage of women ministers, which I don't think applies even to most developed countries."

When the catalyst for such change - South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela - died in December, it stirred raw emotions for Gwala, as it did for many around the world.

"I first heard about Mandela when I was about 14, and even then it was hush-hush and taboo," she recalled. "But you couldn't escape being involved in politics, directly or indirectly.

"My eldest brother left the country because he was part of the struggle, living in exile for five years and then incarcerated on Robben Island for five years."

Gwala, who delivered a moving eulogy at a memorial service for Mandela at St John's Cathedral, remembered the anti-apartheid icon as many others did.

"His ideals did affect my thinking and he was a father to us," she said.