More than words

Ithuba Holdings actively supports SA’s women to ensure that female empowerment progresses beyond mere policies

In August, the nation celebrated Women’s Month, a custom in SA since more than 20 000 incredible women made history in 1956. The annual national women’s month propels the country to revisit abandoned conversations relating to the advancement and the protection of women. However, for the women themselves, the battle of fighting for their rightful position in the economy persists throughout the year.

‘There is a great need to examine initiatives and policies that have been introduced in the name of supporting women. While it is necessary to hold government accountable, corporate citizens must interrogate their motive behind women-empowerment initiatives,’ says Ithuba Holdings co-founder and group CEO Charmaine Mabuza. ‘Are we looking beyond compliance and focusing on impact and sustainability? As an organisation, we have had to ask ourselves such questions.’

Charmaine Mabuza, Ithuba Holdings CEO and co-founder

The answer, she says, ‘which advises our approach, lies in the scientific facts regarding the progression of women in the country, and in its core values as a business’. The Employment Equity Act, No 55 of 1998 was introduced as the law that promotes equity in the workplace; the law that protects people from unfair treatment and any form of discrimination. Yet, despite the general appearance of compliance backed by several policies that serve to advocate for gender parity, a deeper dive into the outcomes reveals a reality of continued dis-regard of gender equity as a basic human right and a legislative obligation.

Consider these facts… Women make up 51% of the SA population but just 21% of the directors of the JSE-listed companies. On average, women in SA earn 25% less than men. Furthermore, 37.9% of households in the country are headed by women and according to Stats SA, 30% of women are unemployed. Yet there are currently no grant-relief measures in place to help sustain unemployed women – there has been no specific amount set aside to relieve women from financial strains even during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite evidence that women were the most vulnerable group. The Conversation reported that 33.1% of informal female workers were unable to work in April 2020, compared with 29.3% of their male counterparts. These alarming statistics and unfavourable gender-equity landscape are exactly why Ithuba Holdings has been deliberate in implementing women-empowerment programmes that are impactful and measurable.

According to Mabuza, the position shared by the board of directors of Ithuba is that economically active women must be a strategic focus for the country to make sustainable socio-economic progress. ‘If this is our ethical stand, we must lead by example and put our money where our mouth is,’ she says.
At Ithuba, 60% of the executive team are women. Female empowerment is an integral part of its business, and the company firmly believes that SA cannot have a sustainable economy if women are still on the fringes.

‘Over the years, I have strived to pull women off the sidelines and ensure that they are fully integrated into decision making positions,’ says Mabuza. ‘This is important to me as  a black female leader who is not immune to both racial and gender discrimination. I have ensured that our corporate social investment projects are aimed at giving women and girls long-term sustainability.’

Such initiatives can be seen in the Female Retailer Development programme the firm launched in 2015. Ithuba has helped in excess of 100 women acquire business acumen and skills through this programme. Beneficiaries are women who own spaza shops and supermarkets in townships and rural areas, where they also sell National Lottery products.

Through partnerships with reputable institutions such as Regenesys and the University of Johannesburg, Ithuba has provided them with an opportunity to acquire business qualifications. In October 2019, a group of 14 women graduated at the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway campus, each with a qualification in advanced social entrepreneurship and social innovation.

Ithuba’s women-focused initiatives are critical to ensuring a more equal balance in terms of economic participation

There’s no doubt that the skills these women have acquired, together with Ithuba’s ongoing support, are proving to be instrumental in their economic survival as they navigate uncharted waters. Programmes such as Ithuba’s Female Retailer Development are critical in inspiring the economic participation of previously marginalised communities, especially female entrepreneurs. Many of these women started their businesses not out of passion, but out of a need to survive in a country where the rate of female unemployment is high. Because 70% of entrepreneurs have no formal business quali-fication, and very often no business acumen or exposure to help them grow their businesses, Mabuza argues that it is up to corporate SA to help bridge such gaps, to afford women a stronger footing in an unfavourable business environment. It is for this reason that Ithuba has committed to programmes such as the Female Retailer Development programme, and why it supports women across the country through entrepreneurship, fitting employment opportunities and education.

The extreme importance of tackling gender inequality at grass-roots level by empowering girls at an early stage cannot be ignored. The Eric and Charmaine Mabuza Scholarship Foundation ensures that as many girls as possible are offered an opportunity to study at tertiary level. In 2018, the company launched the Ithuba Graduate programme, aimed at empowering youth through skills development and hands-on experience, with a large focus on young women. In the current 2020 intake, 83% of the graduates on the programme are female. Ithuba believes that early exposure to business equips women for leadership roles, and is instrumental in bridging gender gaps in the workplace.

‘We aim to sustain this momentum of empowering women across our footprint consistently,’ says Mabuza. Ithuba has 9 000 National Lottery retail terminals across SA and more than 180 000 handheld devices. Its ability to advance and empower women continues to propel Ithuba forward, especially in a time of persistent income inequality. ‘As a female-led organisation, we appreciate the pivotal role to contribute to the prosperity and gender parity of our country,’ she says. ‘More importantly, we believe that the policies that have been developed to empower women should be accompanied by a consistent impact measure that stretches beyond women’s month campaigns.’

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