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Lt Col Phetogo Molawa becomes first African woman to take command of an SA Air Force base

At 32 years of age, Lieutenant-Colonel Phetogo Molawa has already broken through gender and age barriers in a career realm perceived to be masculine.

Lt Col Molawa is the first black person in South Africa to command a South African Air Force (SAAF) installation. She considers this one of her career highlights, with the first highlight qualifying as the first black female helicopter pilot in the SAAF at the tender age of 21. Today she manages over 100 people at the Port Elizabeth Air Force Base, situated a stone’s throw away from the airport with which it shares a runway.

Lt Col Molawa has a quiet strength about her. She describes herself as someone who does not rest in comfort zones and thrives on challenges. “My promotion to commander of this air force base came at a perfect time because I was starting to feel that I’d learnt all that I could as a helicopter pilot. I was ready for the next challenge,” she said.

Her role requires a wide range of skills, from managing logistics to engaging stakeholders such as the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and dealing with VIP and VVIP transfers.

“I do not fl y as much now as I am mostly in the office. I deal with logistics and the technical aspect of the job and I am involved with human resources. My role requires interaction with stakeholders, what our service-level agreements entail and what we offer. I have to know how our stakeholders operate in order to know what we can offer them. It’s a very steep learning curve for me,” she said.

Some of her interactions are with the navy and the army, she explained. “Most of the operations are SAAF operations, in terms of what we are mandated to do. We work with the NSRI for emergency situations and we liaise with the army and the navy.”

Barrier-breaking achievements

Although Lt Col Molawa’s career has been characterised by a series of barrier-breaking achievements, she said rising up the ladder is within anyone’s reach, regardless of gender or race.

“Apparently I am the first black female to command an air force base. In the air force, from the beginning, we are not treated differently. Women are not expected to do half of the training. We all do the same army training, the same pilot training; we don’t get special treatment,” pointed out Lt Col Molawa.

She highlighted the simple truth that gender stereotypes and limitations have no place in the air force or the army “Discrimination on the basis of gender is not allowed. The law protects me because when you finish [a certain level of training], you’re a colonel not a woman. If you are insubordinate to me, you are not insubordinate to a woman but to a colonel,” she said.

Lt Col Molawa acknowledged that there were challenges in commanding men who come from different backgrounds. “Some are much older than me. I’ve only ever worked with men for the most part and so I’ve learnt to handle the challenges that come with working with men. But throughout my career in the air force, I’ve been prepared for that,” she said.

Constantly expanding her horizons

It is a quest for excellence that has propelled this young, ambitious helicopter pilot to reach the current height of her career. Lt Col Molawa initially wanted to become a pharmacist, but when she started to do more research about it she realised that a career as a chemist would translate to the kind of monotony she did not want.

“When I came to know what pharmacy entails I realised I would be confined to one space every day and I thought that after a while that would become too routine,” she said.

In high school she attended a career exhibition, found out about aviation and set her sights on a ‘heavenly’ career. “By that time I knew that I wanted the kind of work that would allow me to apply myself and I started searching. I knew I wanted to travel a lot and for my days not to be monotonous. I came across aviation while attending a career expo. When I told my parents about it, it took them by surprise but they were always supportive. Everyone thought I was crazy, I also thought that at times because I did not know anyone who was a pilot,” she joked.

Her path to becoming a pilot and a commander of an air force base included military training, but she persevered through the gruelling physical challenges and never looked back.

“When I look at my basic military training before joining the air force, I realise it was tough, especially for a female. It was very physically demanding: you go through programmes where you don’t sleep for 24 hours; it’s one physical activity after another. Some activities require that you carry a 50kg bag of cement on your shoulders for kilometres. It’s a real test of character. But not once did I think of quitting,” Lt Col Molawa recalled.

The woman from whom she acquires strength

The fortitude of the fi rst woman she has ever known – her own mother – instilled a never-say-die attitude in her.

Lt Col Molawa, who was raised by her parents in Thaba ‘Nchu, in the former Bophuthatswana, said she remembers strength in her mother that brought the family through difficult times.

“One person who inspires me the most is my mother. I recently told her that every time the going gets tough and I want to give up, I just think of her and the sacrifices."

First published in Public Sector Manager magazine

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