"If anything works for women, in any country, it is most likely to work for most people. If you want to address the majority of the people who really need you, target women."

A voice of deep authority on this subject, with a lifetime of activism and service, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the Executive Director of UN Women. She was born and raised in South Africa, and as a young teacher, joined the struggle to end apartheid and to reshape her country. She served in parliament, in ministerial roles and as Deputy President when Nelson Mandela took over the Presidency. She used her positions to bring new perspectives to the country’s priorities, combat poverty and bring the advantages of a growing economy to the poor, with a particular focus on women.

Phumzile shares anecdotes about her friendship with Mandela and describes the formative issues behind her leadership of women’s rights and drive for investment in gender equality that culminate in the Generation Equality Forum. These insights inform the combination of innovative alliances across generations, feminist and youth movements, civil society, philanthropy, governments and the private sector that promise accelerated change for the women and girls who need it most.



Transcript and multimedia




Melissa Fleming 00:00

From the United Nations. I'm Melissa Fleming and this is Awake At Night. Joining me today is Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women. Phumzile, these days you're based in New York, and you were born and raised in South Africa. What does it mean personally today to be working empowering women?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 00:40

Well, it's a tough job. Women face so many challenges. But it's also an exciting job. Because you are taking people to a path that sometimes they have not thought of. But having said that, women are very much their own persons. We work with women who are trying to be head in their own houses and homes. We are working with women who are not paid equally so they are raising their voice about the money that is owed to them, you know, and more excitingly, is the girls. The girls are just amazing, they know the substance, and they are not shy to talk about it.


Melissa Fleming 01:45

What is it about the girls? Do you think there's a new era for girls, do they have more confidence/ aspirations than before?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 01:53

Certainly more confidence. But also they are radically impatient. They have seen the changes which we have worked for. And for them, they think that maybe it's always been like this. And they don't think it's enough so they are always demanding more.


Melissa Fleming 02:18

I wonder about you as a girl, I mean, this is really going back, I know that you were actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and we will hear more about that later. I want to come to that. But were you a girl who thought you could change things and did you have that confidence?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 02:39

You know, I developed that confidence activist type person at university. As a young person, I was involved in, more or less, the polite organisations. I was working with the YWCA [Young Women's Christian Association]. I was a Girl Guide. But coming to university, I then became more confrontational. I took on the struggle, got into trouble for it. But it was an important work to do.


Melissa Fleming 03:23

What was it that made you switch to a more confrontational and then what happened to you? What got you in trouble?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 03:30

Well, because a party made you angry. You recognised that your education was not the same as, for instance, the white education. You recognised that as a black person, there were jobs you were not expected and or allowed to do. We began to demand all those things and that put us into direct confrontation with the police. I mean, I always say I remember, as a young person, I used to have a T-shirt, which said, ‘victory or death.’ And I think about it now I'm like, ‘What was I thinking?’   


Melissa Fleming 4:17

So you were willing to die for this cause?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 4:19

But at that time, that was like, yes, you know, it's not something I would want my child to think about. It’s not something I would want for myself now but this is just how angry we were at that time.


Melissa Fleming 04:33

What did you do specifically that led to you getting in trouble and then what happened? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 04:37

You didn't have to do anything that is that out of order. Being on the street, marching, brought you into confrontation. And sometimes we went to places where they didn't want us… going to the beach, which was a white beach was a crime so we would dare them and then you'd be arrested for that banded up, taken into a van, and taken into custody. And of course, they always were suspecting that we were conniving with people, that we’re dangerous or not trusted. So you know, you’d be raided at night, [they’d] take up your blankets, everything, looking for...


Melissa Fleming 05:34

So the police actually came into your house?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 05:36

Yeah, into our house. By that time I was also a teacher. I lived in the school, yeah, ransacked the place and they leave your place upside down. They are looking for anything that they could find to associate you with wrongdoing.


Melissa Fleming 05:55

Did anything, I mean, did you have to go to prison or? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 05:58

No, I didn't have to go. I was one of those who would be arrested in a crowd and we would be kept there. Of course, we would get lawyers to come and release us. They would release us. A few days you will be caught somewhere else, you will be taken back. But my friend, my husband now, spent five years in prison, and a whole lot of people who had a much longer time in prison. I'm thankful that I was never sentenced.


Melissa Fleming 06:32

What were you ultimately hoping for? Your T-shirt said victory or death. What was it you were fighting for?



Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 06:41

Well, we wanted to vote for one. And we thought this was the right that every South African should have. We wanted to have an education that was equal. And we wanted not to be told where we should live. We did not want to carry the dompas, which is a special ID for black people. Yeah. So we just wanted all of those things to go away.


Melissa Fleming 07:12

Tell me about your parents. What were they thinking of your activity? Were they worried about you or were they cheering you on or a combination of both?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 07:22

They were worried. They themselves were not the kind of activist. My mother was a nurse, she was doing her own advocacy for reproductive rights of women, working on health issues in the community. And my father was a teacher. They were concerned because also the police did kill a lot of people. If you're in a crowd, which was often the case, the chances of being shot were always there. 


Melissa Fleming 08:06

At what point in your childhood, did you become aware of how horrific this system was?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 08:13

Well, already at school, because remember, our schools were segregated. So you knew that this is a school only for children like me. We were also in schools that were not as nice. You go into town you see the schools that white children went to - [it was] chalk and cheese. 



Melissa Fleming 08:41

Better playgrounds?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 08:4

Absolutely. Yes, yes and we even did different subjects. So you then realise that whatever we would do was inferior then. And having said that, we were so determined to pull through and to succeed and to prove them wrong. Our teachers, I have to say, we're really determined to make sure that we became something and always told us that we were somebodies and we should walk tall and act like we are, you know, the people that we are.


Melissa Fleming 09:33

Was there any teacher who influenced you. in particular, and how?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 09:39

So many teachers did influence me. I studied history at high school and I loved it. All my history teachers were good. I mean, the story became alive and it was always so exciting to hear about the story, but also the stories and the events in history were a lot about men and that is also what I think made me so conscious about the exclusion of women. Because, you know, it was like, were there no women in these places? What did they do? I began to sort of do my own research to find out about the women, and what they actually did. And it became obvious that hearing about women is not something that you can take for granted.


Melissa Fleming 10:39

If you look back on your life, it does seem one of success. You became like your dad, you became a teacher...


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 10:47

...became a teacher. 


Melissa Fleming 10:48

And you taught at a high school?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 10:50



Melissa Fleming 10:51

What did you teach and...


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 10:53

Ah, it's just wonderful. I taught history and geography and it really gave me an opportunity also, to engage with young people. A lot of my students became very political also and activists. It also was a nice place to be because you were shaping someone. I look at my own kids now who are older and will not listen to me very much. And I feel ‘Oh, my goodness, how I wish they were that smaller for much longer because they were such…


Melissa Fleming 11:40

Because they were looking up to you and...


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 11:44

Well, we then also continued to struggle. But at that time, my husband who was then my fiance got arrested. And now we were worried about the chances that both of us could be in jail. So I quietly got invited by the YWCA to do something in Geneva. I took it like anything and left South Africa. It gave me also an opportunity to travel around the world as a young person because I was working with other young women. So I was doing the work of the YWCA but also I was talking about South Africa, about rights. I was mobilising in from there. The system became to be much harder on children. They were killing children, they were arresting children. I mean…


Melissa Fleming 12:48

What year was this?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 12:50

In the ‘80s. And after that, the feeling was that we have to take action. So I was really agitated about that. By then, my husband had come out of prison and had also left the country to join me in Geneva. So we both went back to South Africa and started to work with and for children in and around South Africa.


Melissa Fleming 13:18

So just tell me a bit about your husband. He was in prison for five years?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 13:23

He was in prison for five years, yes, for refusing to give evidence against a colleague of his who was the comrades arrested for terrorism. And terrorism could be anything in South Africa during that time. So, you know, he refused to give evidence. He was then sentenced for defying the court and stayed in prison. And on the fifth year, when he was coming out, I was already outside South Africa and I came back home because we were going to get married that week, the week of his coming out of prison. 

I had gone there with his lawyer who was a woman, Victoria, whose husband had been killed at the time when he was getting arrested. So we went with Victoria to see him to tell him what were the arrangements for the wedding and so on. Two days after that, the police come to him and say, you know, those two women who came to see you, one of them is dead. And you can just imagine he just didn’t know which woman I mean, we were both important to him. 

You know, of course, it was Victoria. She had been killed, murdered by the police. So instead of coming out of prison, excited about the wedding, we had to be planning for a funeral. That was terrible. Our wedding, then we decided, ‘Okay, we're going to get married.’ And we could do the funeral. But you know, we toned it down. Our wedding was full of tear gas because the police thought it was a rally spread. They sprayed tear gas inside the church. 


Melissa Fleming 15:27

As you were conducting the ceremony?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 15:29

Yeah. But anyway, we are still here.


Melissa Fleming 15:35

And your husband's lawyer, did you ever come to understand why she was killed?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 15:43

Yeah. Well, the same thing. For fighting the system. She was a human rights lawyer. 


Melissa Fleming 15:51

What was your feeling after that? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 15:52

It was horrible. Really, really horrible. This was the time when you'd sort of go to your honeymoon, we just went into mourning. 


Melissa Fleming 16:07

And then you returned with him to Geneva?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 16:10

I returned, yes, yes. 


Melissa Fleming 16:12

And what made you decide you and your husband to return to South Africa and what was the year?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 16:16

Well, in 1887? We had a child then and we were concerned about the children of South Africa and what was happening to them. So we were restless. So we decided, you know, we really wanted to go back and to be part of this struggle. And at that time, it sort of felt like things were going the right way. We were pushing hard enough. That change was possible. So we wanted to be part of delivering. Thankfully, we did arrive at the end of apartheid.


Melissa Fleming 17:00

It was just a couple of years later, I believe in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, how did that make you feel? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 17:09

It was an amazing day. We sort of got to know during the week that he may be coming out. So we were excited. When it was announced, we all went to Cape Town. And Mandela himself arriving at the place where he was supposed to come and greet the people of Cape Town. It was so full. We were afraid that people were going to smash him in the car. So they drove him out to the house of someone who was not even there. 

And of course, he didn't look like the Mandela we knew. You know, having been in prison for a long time. He was much older at the time. Like, is it him? Do you think they exchanged him? But, of course, once he spoke, yes, that was him. Yeah. So it was a wonderful day. 


Melissa Fleming 18:24

Do you remember what he said? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 18:26

Well, the one thing that I remember was that he said, I put my life into your hands. And all of us said, ‘He must not say that because our hands are not the best hands because you know, we were throwing stones. We were just not the kind of people you put your life in your hands. I mean, we needed to be organised, to be calmed down, and to organise ourselves to be ready to take over a country. But of course, it happened, but it seemed like that was something that everyone noticed that ‘Huh? No, we are putting ourselves in his hands!

Phumzile, standing surrounded by people, claps her hands while confetti paper showers them.


Melissa Fleming 19:19

You became a member of parliament in 1994 when South Africa held its first open multi-racial elections. How did that happen? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 19:30

Yes, yes, that was exciting. Well, you know, our political party got nominated and of course, I was chosen to be a Chair of a party. That was looking at bringing the country together because you remember we had homelands. In each homeland, there was a Prime Minister, Minister of Health, a Minister of Labour. So my responsibility was to create one civil service in South Africa with the same conditions across the country. 

That's when I realised that ‘My goodness!’ When we were fighting against apartheid, I didn't bargain that this is what I'm going to have to do. Because it was so difficult, and painful also to have to tell people, they don't have jobs anymore. 


Melissa Fleming 20:31

Is there anything you liked about being a politician? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 20:34

Well, after that job, then I became a minister. That was much nicer, difficult in its own way. But it was that time when we were fixing things, it was… It felt triumphant, that people who would not have had an opportunity to start a business, we were there to assist them to start a business. People who were not able to go on foreign trips to sell the things that they have, they were able to do that. And being able to showcase the products that South Africans made. It was also a re-entry into the world and to be accepted, and to be given opportunities and to join the United Nations, that was quite a highlight in our lives.


Melissa Fleming 21:30

It must have been actually quite nice to be so celebrated.


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 21:36

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I never thought I would end up working at the UN. Because I mean, growing up, I associated the UN with the struggle against apartheid. That was what the UN was to me. It was that place where people struggle and standing with us to end apartheid and we're very thankful for that.


Melissa Fleming 22:01

Your political career went even further, I believe. Can you describe what happened next?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 22:09

Yeah, well, from Trade and Industry, I went into minerals and energy which was a very masculine industry. The mining industry in South Africa is big and very male, very white, very old. So there was a lot of work to change the industry and to bring in also different people so as to make the industry representative. It was quite, quite a fight. But you know, now it's okay. 

And then, of course, energy was complicated as well. Electricity was also limited to white people. The rest of the country in their homes did not have electricity so one of my biggest challenges as a Minister of Electricity was electrifying the country and getting as many people as possible to have electricity in their home. That is probably one of the things I'm proudest of at that time. 


Melissa Fleming 23:23

You, as a woman, were leading very, very male-dominated place, how was that?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 23:31

And I tell you, every time, not every time but many times, I would arrive at a place with men; my Director General, my officials, and they would just walk past me and go to them and greet the Minister. And they said, ‘No, no, this is the Minister’. Yeah, that used to happen quite a lot. 


Melissa Fleming 24:00

Yeah, we're gonna come to your struggle to elevate women. But I just want to have one last question about... Well, a couple. You had one son. Do you have any other children? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 24:11

No, I had one biological son and another three children that I adopted.


Melissa Fleming 24:18

So you adopted three children? 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 24:20



Melissa Fleming 24:21

Why did you choose to adopt these children?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 24:24

Well, they were also children who were in the family, you know, for all kinds of reasons, needed parenting.


Melissa Fleming 24:33

They'd lost their parents?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 24:35

No, the parents were there. But you know, it happens in Africa. But it was wonderful, really wonderful. Yeah. All old now. Everyone is working, married and so on. It's beautiful. 


Melissa Fleming 24:51

Wonderful. They must be very proud of you. 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 24:55 

Yeah. Well, I'm proud of them.


Melissa Fleming 24:58

Just a question. I mean, did you encounter Nelson Mandela after he was released and you were a politician?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 25:07

Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I worked for him. He was my boss. He appointed me to be the Minister of Trade and Industry so I joined his cabinet. An amazing guy and whenever people talk about Nelson Mandela in a serious way, the most things I remember about him is just how funny he was. He was the person who really made people in his company to be at ease, made jokes about himself a lot, was always encouraging. 

He even once called me to tell me that I should be exercising, I'm gaining too much weight. And really was also very concerned about your next move. Are you studying? What are you going to do next? What are you preparing yourself for? And I remember him very, very fondly. And I think one thing that I took from him was how important it is to move on, and not sweat, everything, that it frees you even more than your enemy. If you stay angry at something, you are wasting your time because it consumes, you know, anger can be so consuming. But really his life was a lesson…


Melissa Fleming 26:55  

Because everybody expected bitterness and anger.


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 27:00 

And he could be very angry, as well. Oh, my goodness, he could be very angry, very straight talker. But he said, ‘I don't want people to look at me as a saint. I'm not a saint. I'm just a sinner who is trying.’ So you know, so there was that as well of him recognising himself as just an ordinary human being.


Melissa Fleming 27:27

Well, nobody felt that he was an ordinary human being, that was very humble of him. How did you then what led you to take up this position at the United Nations organisation for women called UN Women?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka  27:45

After having been a Deputy President, I left politics and I decided to go and study. I had always wanted to do a Ph.D. So I went to study in Warwick, just literally, when I was going to defend my thesis, somebody called me and say Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the UN would like to talk to you. ‘Me? Why, what have I done?’ So anyway, [I] took the phone and then he told me ‘Well, we know we have this position we've been struggling to get somebody we are asking you if you could apply and be interviewed.’ So I then applied and lucky enough, got it.


Melissa Fleming 28:36 

What is it about this cause that UN Women represents that really, you know, gets you up in the morning?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 28:43

You know, one thing I will say about women. If anything works for women, in any country, it is most likely to work for most people. If you want to address the majority of the people who really need you, target women. Through that, you are likely to make it better for most of the people. That for me has been a really guiding mantra. And working for women is also important because of just the number of people that women look after.


Melissa Fleming 29:34

What is it you're most proud of achieving during this eight years at UN Women?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 29:41

[The] progress there has been, that's for sure. You know, we have more girls at school. We have more women who are not dying while they're having their babies. We have more leaders who are women. But we are not exactly where we are supposed to be. We needed pace. We need resources and we need more people to do this work.

We are looking at how we make sure that we cut off this burden of being a woman with all the things that are negative that comes with it. We put ourselves in the shoes of that girl to grow up to be someone different. But at the same time, which is why we call it generation equality, we are the generation that really can make the change. The oldest person to the youngest, we are one generation that has to take this equality forward. So we are generation equality. You and I are generation equality. We carry this equality.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka laughs with a group of young girls.


Melissa Fleming 30:59

Can you just explain because not everyone knows what generation equality is?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 31:04

You know, generation equality is the biggest coalition we've ever had of people with commitments that are concrete in finance, in policy, in law, in programmes over a period of five years and it’s been beautiful to see how member states have stepped up and coming forward, how private sector has stepped up. How philanthropy has stepped up. How youth has stepped up. 

So hopefully, in the next five years, these people will really learn to work together to support the United Nations, those who have not supported us before. And we will give something to women, which women really deserve.


Melissa Fleming 31:57

We've just gone through the worst crisis in our times, the global coronavirus pandemic, and the effects on girls and women have been horrible. You know, when you think about women and girls in the context of this pandemic what is keeping you awake at night?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 32:14

Well, the pandemic has been quite severe. The loss of people and the grief that many of us feel. I lost my mother to COVID in January, so I think about her every day. And I'm like, ‘Why did... how did this happen?’ You know, people have lost two parents at the same time, siblings and so on. So it's really been horrible. Women have died but more than anything else, women have cared for us.

Because if you think of the number of people who are women who work in hospital, more than 70 nurses and they cook, they clean, they are so important. The world has to think about making sure that women come out of this better. Two-thirds of the jobs that have been lost during the pandemic were lost by women. The violence against women has been horrendous and girls have dropped out of school as well, because of pregnancy in the majority from non-consensual sex. So it really, really is heavy on women. And girls.


Melissa Fleming 33:58

It's really a shame that it's had this awful effect, and I'm really sorry to hear about your Mum. It was really bad in South Africa...


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 34:12

Yeah, yes. Yes, it still is. 


Melissa Fleming 32:14

...the virus and it got to her. And your dad was with her or...?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 34:17

My dad died 10 years ago. But because my dad was sick for a long time. We had time to nurse him, you know, by the time he went, we all had made peace with it. My mother was a spring chicken of a 90-year-old. You know, she was still sitting with her phone, organising. She ran a clinic from home, Meals on Wheels, medicines, school education, she had a full life. Death was just… when people said ‘Oh, you know your mother at least she's resting’. No, my mother was not tired. She was not tired. But well, this is what it is. Yeah.


Melissa Fleming 35:12

She had a long, long life to lead after, well, it's the cruelty of this horrible virus.


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 35:21

It’s worrying now that it's also affecting children, you know.


Melissa Fleming 35:28

We have the other inequality of the vaccine rollout. And I'm wondering, Phumzile, what is going to be your next chapter then?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 35:38

Yeah, sleep, that’s for sure. I haven't quite made up my mind what I will be doing. I am obviously like everybody worried about my country and what has happened. So for now, I am supporting the training of teachers in digital literacy because we are wanting to keep girls at school. If we educate the girls, they can then fight for themselves much better.


Melissa Fleming 36:15

What do you do because I know you're very busy and you said you want to go and sleep because you don't sleep very much and you work with such a passion all of the time.


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 36:23

I’ll sleep for three months. I have people who will be doing these things. I’ll sleep for three months but [by] January, I’m up. 


Melissa Fleming 36:32

You're up again. And what is it that you just enjoy doing for fun?


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 36:40

I love music. I love playing with my grandchildren, that gives me a lot of joy. 


Melissa Fleming 36:48

I guess you'll get to spend more time with them when you're not sleeping. 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 36:52

Absolutely. Yeah, we sleep together. 


Melissa Fleming 36:58

Phumzile, thank you so much for joining us on Awake At Night. You think it's been a real pleasure to hear your life story. 


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka 37:07

Thank you. Wow. 


Melissa Fleming 37:11

It's an odyssey!


Melissa Fleming 37:22

Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night On Twitter we’re @UN and I'm @melissafleming, Phumzile is at @phumzileunwomen Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference. 

Thanks to my producers Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Cheri Percy, Fatuma Khaireh, and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Angelina Boniface, Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio. 

The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.