Groundbreakers land youth awards

2012-07-30 20:58

Refilwe Ledwaba’s office offers her a view that is as high and as wide as the clear blue skies. Contrary to what one might assume on seeing her petite frame and charming dimpled smile, she flies helicopters for the South African Police Service for a living and spends her days in the sky with the best of her male counterparts.

“Flying is very nice, it’s something different. When you get into the air – the view from your office is different and when you land that aircraft you look at it and think, ‘Wow, I flew that,’” she says.

Ledwaba is one of the few female pilots in the country but attaining that status has not been easy.

Among the challenges she has faced during her training were a lack of mentorship and direction, as well as a very conspicuous lack of female role models in the industry. The 33-year-old’s stature (she weighs just 49kg and for some solo flights one needs to weigh at least 60kg) was also a stumbling block.

“(When I began training) I was very small and (because of this) I couldn’t fly on my own. They had to put sand bags (in the aircraft I was flying) to compensate for my weight,” she says. Ledwaba was also very short and had to use to use pillows to prop her up.

Rather than be discouraged by these challenges, they inspired her to start an organisation that would cater to the needs of women in the industry.

“None of my male colleagues had the problems I was facing ... (and) I thought that if we had an organisation for women, we could talk and the second generation would not need (to go through what we did),” she said.

Enter Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace (SAWIA), a concept she started mulling in 2007 and which she finally established in 2009.

The non-profit organisation provides a platform for information, education and networking opportunities for females in the industry in general, as well as financial support to aspiring aviators in the SADC region.

The contribution Ledwaba has made has not gone unnoticed and in addition to the numerous awards she has garnered, she was honoured as the winner in the entrepreneurship category at the inaugural South African Youth Awards hosted by the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) on Saturday, walking away with a R50 000 prize.

Far be it from being content with her achievements so far, Ledwaba says she still has uncharted territory to explore. In addition to having private pilot licences for both fixed-wing (planes) and rotary-wing (helicopters) aircraft, she wants to attain the highest licence, the airline transport licence, for both.

“To be dual-rated in fixed-wing and rotor-wing is good. There’s not many people who have that, it’s rare to find in the whole world.”

In addition to pursuing those ambitions, the high-flyer also plans to start an MBA in social entrepreneurship next year.

Where did she get her determined spirit from? It’s her single-parent mother who inspired her, she says. “Growing up I knew we didn’t have a lot of stuff that other kids had, but we never actually felt it. Although my mother was a teacher, she was busy studying as (my six siblings and I) were growing up.”

All in all Ledwaba says her background prepared her for her current occupation. “Those experiences prepared me. I knew that I couldn’t give up,” she says.

Winners in the other categories at the South African Youth Awards were:

Extraordinary Champions: Nolwazi Madlala, a physically challenged Masters in Clinical Psychology student who also was the overall winner;

Academic Excellence: Peter Malatji, a post-doctoral candidate in chemical engineering who runs a chemistry project in six high schools in Mpumalanga;

Arts and Entertainment: Paul Modjadji, a self-taught dancer who also recently won the Global Youth leadership Award in Washington DC;

Science and Technology: Stuart Ntlathi, inventor of a 15-in-1 microwave oven and an electronic vuvuzela;

Health and Wellbeing: Ross McReath, founder of the Tiger Titans Cricket Club aimed at giving disadvantaged youth access to pro-trials;

Social Cohesion: Lebogang Bogopane, a volunteer at a centre for abused women and children; and

Environment: Ntombomzi Tsotetsi, a farmer who educates her community about organic farming, the environment and climate change.

Earlier in the week NYDA CEO Steven Ngubeni had said the awards were meant to inspire young people.
“The purpose (of the awards) is to expose things happening in corners that young people do not see. In Alexandra, Tsomo, youth are achieving big time. We want to ensure the youth is motivated and contributing to society,” he said.

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