Business, Sport, Sci-Tech

Lee Swan, first African woman to feel the pull of Magnetic North

By Sipho Hlongwane 17 March 2011

Why would anyone want to drag their luggage on foot to the Magnetic North Pole? Especially since “Top Gear” proved you can do it in a car? Our intrepid reporter SIPHO HLONGWANE travelled to the wilds of Bryanston, just off William Nicol, to talk to Lee Swan, who will be the first African woman to take part in the gruelling Polar Race.

Lee Swan, a 30-year-old manager at Deloitte’s sustainability and climate change division is taking part in the 2011 Polar Race, a taxing 560km dash from Resolute Bay, Canada’s second most northerly town, to the Magnetic North Pole near Ellesmere Island. It is all part of her drive to get companies in South Africa to pay more attention to the issue of sustainability and climate change.

Swan’s job at Deloitte is to help large companies fit sustainability and climate change into their business plans and strategies.

Her participation in the race in April, is also part of an effort to raise funds for the Leap Science and Maths School, which enables students from disadvantaged backgrounds to do science and maths in higher grade right through high school. Being one of the few girls to have taken maths and science in Bryanston High is part of the reason why Swan is raising funds for Leap, but also the fact that Africa’s future lies in students with a strong background in the two disciplines.

Swan won’t be using the traditional sled and team of huskies to get to the destination in the frozen north. Rather, she and her two teammates will be the huskies, except they’ll be equipped with skis. She will have to carry everything she needs on the sled, including clothes, camping gear and essentials like a shotgun for the friendly polar bears.

The Daily Maverick met with Swan before she departed for further training in Italy to find out why she didn’t just get in a car and drive to the Magnetic North Pole, as two thirds of Top Gear famously did in 2007, while Richard Hammond did it with a dog sled.

The Daily Maverick: You’re going to be pulling a sled to the Magnetic North Pole. What on earth does that have to do with climate change or sustainability?

Lee Swan: The primary driver for me is my interest in climate change. I first heard about this race in 2007 and I thought doing it as a personal challenge would give me a platform to talk about climate change. The issue about which I’m raising awareness, which is very well timed, is the need for regulatory certainty around sustainability and climate change so that business can respond. With the lack of regulatory certainty, it’s very difficult for business to know how to tackle issues around sustainability and climate change. Everything happens in a vacuum and that’s very difficult. The reason why it’s well timed is that in November South Africa is the host for the United Nations’ Climate Change negotiations conference, which happens every year. 2011 is a very important year because certain elements of the existing climate change deal, the Kyoto Protocol, expire in 2012. So the year to renegotiate those elements and get a legally binding deal on them is 2011 in Durban.

DM: Tell us about the race.

LS: My journey starts here in South Africa on Friday and I have one week of skiing training in Italy to acclimatise and catch up on my cross-country skiing. The expedition then meets in London, where we all catch a plane to Ottawa in Canada and then catch a series of small chartered flights to Resolute Bay in the Northern Arctic Territories of Canada. It’s an Inuit town, the last we’ll see and it’s our starting position.

DM: You’re carrying everything you need from Resolute to the pole, and back?

LS: Not back. When we all arrive at the magnetic pole, they’ll put out a call for a plane to come and fetch us. Subject to the weather, we could be there for a few days. They need to be able to take off and land. We carry absolutely everything. We are a three-man team. What was also interesting for me is that I set out to do this as a personal challenge, and once I’d qualified they told me that I was the first African woman to do this.

DM: And that doesn’t disadvantage you?

LS: In some ways it does, but we Africans are used to performing under adversity. I’m pretty confident that if anyone else can do it, so can I. We’ve had a few South African guys in 2005 do the race. I’m partnered with a man from the UK and one from Canada.

DM: All the teams are sponsored?

LS: It’s basically individual sponsorships. So I have the pleasure of being sponsored by Deloitte, for which I work.

DM: A couple of years ago, Top Gear went from Resolute to the Magnetic North Pole in a car and dog sled. You’re going to be pulling a sled. You’re essentially going to be the husky in front of the sled. Why not dogs?

LS: The race is meant to be about human endurance. It’s about the endurance of the human spirit. This isn’t for tourists, if you know what I mean. It’s about you and what you can achieve as a person.

DM: So what the race organisers are saying is that this particular race is better because it’s worse.

LS: Um, ja. The tagline is “Probably the toughest race in the world”.

DM: How long have you been training for it?

LS: About a year. I found out about this in 2007, so it took me a few years to get up the guts to go for it. I took it quite seriously when the race organisers said I could try to qualify for it. This was January last year. I found out I’d qualified in August last year. When I got the starting position, the pressure really came on. Since I found out that I’d qualified, I’ve been training twice a day, from 4:00 in the morning till 7:30, and again from 5:30 to 7:30 after my day job.

DM: You almost kill yourself in a race to the pole and then you come back. Going back to your clients to whom you want to sell sustainability strategies. What do you say to them?

LS: I think there are a lot of companies in South Africa that are not aware about sustainability. Some treat it as a nice-to-have and haven’t really figured out what sustainability and climate change could mean for them. You’ll appreciate that the topic has quite a lot of emotion around it. For me it’s to get clients to ask questions. I want them to ask me why I did this race so I can engage with them on the issue of climate change.

DM: This race then is essentially a very tough way to get a conversation going.

LS: Ja, basically. I’m willing to go through this so you as a CEO of a big South African company can get in front of me and ask me why I did it, which is where I want you. I think in South Africa this year we have an opportunity to influence the discussion around climate change. If you look at global statistics, of the top 100 economies in the world, 51 are private organisations, not countries, and yet the climate change conversation seems to be among governments. What I’d like to happen in South Africa is to influence businesses to start getting involved in these conversations. A large portion of the change that needs to happen sits in the realm of business.

DM: If you were to fall through some very thin ice on your way to the pole, and then not come back, wouldn’t that be a great way to tell everyone that climate change is real?

LS: I hope that doesn’t happen! The important thing is that it’s a personal challenge and not really part of my day job. The interests just happen to overlap. There’s absolutely no way that thinking about my day job over there is going to help me survive. We usually say that its hot water that you want to avoid, but in this case there are many interesting ways to train and keep me out of the cold water. DM

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