The Future is Female: Nozipho January-Bardill is Paving the Way for Women in the Boardroom
Nozipho January-Bardill has led a dazzling career in the public and private sectors. A former Ambassador to Switzerland, she has served on the boards of AngloGold Ashanti, Credit Suisse Securities and Mercedes Benz South Africa, and chairs the Council of the Nelson Mandela University and the board of the UN Global Compact Local Network. Nozipho has worked in leadership positions at MTN and a number of non-governmental organisations. We caught up with her to hear about her experiences in human rights work and how she’s been able to build on her passion for women’s empowerment.
“As you grow older, you start to understand that you can’t change the world. But you have a sphere of influence, and it’s in that sphere that you can effect change. Across the globe, more women are getting into parliament and employed in government; more women are involved in businesses and sitting on boards. The private sector is waking up to the fact that women make a huge difference in positions of power.”
What was your childhood like and how was it impacted by the experience of growing up under apartheid?
I was born in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape of South Africa. My parents were both teachers and came from poor backgrounds. My two sisters and I grew up during the early years of the institutionalised racist state set up by the apartheid government in 1948. My parents had experienced racism but not in this formalised way, where the state designed a complete separation of races. They were very pragmatic in the way they dealt with it — and feisty in their attitude towards it! My dad and his brothers and sisters were strong-willed people, so they wouldn’t let it diminish them. My parents moved us out of African schools and into schools designated for ‘coloured’ children, because at the time, coloured education was at the same level as white education. It was hard for me and my sisters. Not everybody accepted us in the school, but we understood the need for having access to a better quality of education.
By 1968, things had gotten really bad in the country and so we left for Swaziland. I went to university there and it was wonderful to be in such a diverse and non-racist environment. It was there that I met John, my husband, and we stayed on in Swaziland for over a decade before moving to England. Because John is white, we couldn’t return to South Africa, as it would breach the Immorality Act.
Did you enjoy living in the UK?
I loved my time in London — it’s still one of my favourite cities! I got a scholarship to do my Master’s degree at Essex University and then went straight into a job within higher education. Throughout this period, I was very active in anti-apartheid work and in mobilising African women from all parts of the continent living in London as political exiles and refugees. We started an organisation called Akina Mama wa Afrika, which is now based in Uganda. It was initially a support group for African women and it’s turned into a leadership training institution.
Do you remember the moment when you knew that you had to return to South Africa? Was it when Nelson Mandela was released from prison?
Yes, exactly. I still have such vivid memories of sitting in front of the television and watching him walk free; tears poured out of me. They were happy tears, but also sad, knowing that I had spent my life in exile. By 1994, we had returned to South Africa. I wanted to contribute to the transformation of our society and the construction of a new country.
After serving in Parliament and starting a transformation consultancy, you were called upon to represent South Africa as the Ambassador to Switzerland. What was this experience like?
When I received the call letting me know that the President had appointed me to serve as an Ambassador, I didn’t believe it! Although I wasn’t too enamoured with leaving most of the family behind, it turned out to be the best time of my life. I had been in leadership positions before, but this was the first time I was at the peak. Leading the Embassy, I was able to do great work and I really brought my activism to the post. I think people referred to me as the ‘mad Ambassador’! The celebrations we organised across Switzerland for the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy were amazing. One of my most memorable initiatives was asking the city of Bern to paint their tram in the colours of the South African flag — and they did it! It turned out beautifully.
With the many roles that you’ve had in the public and private sector, was it challenging to operate within male-dominated spaces?
One of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t need to behave like a man to succeed in male-dominated environments — you can retain your femininity. I’m a soft-spoken person and I didn’t want to change who I was to fit in. I’ve had the opportunity of working with incredible women in government and at the UN, and they were examples to me of how to use your power in effective ways. You learn by watching your leaders — but you also need to be yourself.
It’s important to be consistent with who you are and what you’re promoting. In my board positions, I’ve been able to bring more women to the table, so that they can experience what it’s like to sit on a board. And I’ve been able to push for equal pay for women.
Much of your life’s work has been centred on gender equality. Would you say that the situation for women has improved?
As you grow older, you start to understand that you can’t change the world. But you have a sphere of influence, and it’s in that sphere that you can effect change. It’s not easy, but I do think things are improving. Across the globe, more women are getting into parliament and employed in government; more women are involved in businesses and sitting on boards. The private sector is waking up to the fact that women make a huge difference in positions of power. They bring a social focus, not just a profit-making focus. Young women are coming up with the most innovative ideas in business and changing trajectories of how companies operate.
Having served for years as a member of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and a Senior Advisor to UN Women, are you hopeful that a socially just future is possible — one that is not structured by racism and sexism?
The UN is the only organisation of its kind in the world, but there are inherent limitations in what it can do in member states. I served on the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for twelve years, and even if we weren’t able to transform societies, we could at least give people a voice. And governments don’t like to be embarrassed!
I think it’s vital that we don’t negate our gains, otherwise we negate the struggles that we engage in. UN Women has been incredibly effective in creating global change. All you can do is chip away — it’s often slow and hard work, but I do see many shifts that have occurred and I am hopeful. The one area that has unfortunately become worse under Covid is gender-based violence, with women stuck at home and trapped in abusive situations. It’s gone up in every single country in the world.
We’re excited to hear about the new book that you’re working on. Would you mind sharing what it’s about?
This is a project that I’ve long wanted to do, and Covid just pushed me into it. It’s a compilation of stories from sixty women across the continent, highlighting their work in forging gender equality and making a difference in their countries. The book is dedicated to commemorating Beijing+25 and pays tribute to the inspiring work that women are leading throughout Africa. We’ve just finished putting it together so it should be released next year — watch this space!
What advice do you have for women in The Room who want to achieve positions of leadership?
Do the things that you really love. We often deny ourselves of this, yet it’s important to be driven from both your heart and your head, so that you can do the work that fulfils you most. And don’t confuse who you are with what you have, because what you have can be gone tomorrow, so try to be as authentic to yourself as you possibly can.